“I was scared of the way he was talking to us, as our lawyer, that something bad was going to happen…”
The day was balmy and clouds were scarce. A light breeze attenuated the routine humidity besetting Maryland’s eastern shore during summer’s waning days. But the climate offered no quarter outside of the quaint office front located at 19 Bay Street, in a town called Easton, on August 25, 2005. As passions rose, temperature was yanked in tandem.
John C. Dodd III, chairman of the board for the defunct private security firm S2i, better known by its earlier name, Beckett Brown International, or BBI, confronted his legal counsel after his lawsuit against former company management had just drawn to a close. Dodd‘s hopes of recuperating a lost fortune were dashed by the court’s judgment earlier that day.
Dodd expressed shock that his attorney, James Johnson, a partner at the blue-ribbon law firm Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, displayed no evidence of the defendants’ criminality at trial. Most lawyers would strike a conciliatory chord after losing a suit that had cost their client over $2 million and, according to Dodd, failing to admit evidence as promised. Witnesses say that Johnson’s demeanor was vacant.
Knowledge of the defendants’ criminal behavior wasn’t news to Johnson. As Dodd’s attorney, Johnson was privy to the mountains of evidence accumulated by the BBI director from within his company. Hundreds of file boxes sat undisturbed in the back of the courtroom during the four-week trial containing every detail of BBI’s sordid trade: former government security officials burglarizing, wiretapping and spying on targets for wealthy clients and multinational corporations.
Though Dodd’s lawsuit was limited mainly to claims of fraud, mismanagement and misrepresentation against his former colleagues, he alleges that Johnson’s trial strategy, as relayed to him, would include the criminal evidence to display the defendants’ characters. With that tactic deep-sixed and the case over, Dodd threatened to go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and press with every incriminating document in tow.
According to the sworn affidavit of a witness, Johnson warned that Dodd would “suffer severe consequences” if he followed through on his ultimatum. When Dodd inquired what Johnson was implying, his lawyer wouldn’t divulge. Johnson then allegedly instructed Dodd to make believe none of it ever happened.
Johnson, citing his obligations to Dodd as a former client, says he can’t comment on their discussion that day.
But four days after the alleged threat, Johnson sent Dodd a terse yet formal letter “to follow up on our conversation.” He recommended “that neither [BBI] nor John personally bring the complaints to the press or to the criminal authorities. I see no possible benefit to the company nor to John, and I see great potential risks.”
“I was scared to death,” recalled Lisa Andrew, the above-mentioned affiant, in an interview. A trusted accountant whom Dodd brought into BBI following mounting suspicions of fraud, Andrew testified at trial and served as president of the company from 2001–2005.
“[Johnson] told us not to do anything: don’t contact, don’t say anything to anybody…I was scared of the way he was talking to us, as our lawyer, that something bad was going to happen if we ever [did],” she said. In fear, she resigned shortly thereafter.
For Dodd, this menacing colloquy was just the beginning. While preparing for trial, he had sifted through enough internal documents to know BBI was guilty of far more than just defrauding him and its customers. Now he suspected the company’s tentacles extended farther than he had ever imagined.
Dodd began poring over the backlog of documents seized from BBI and searched for clues. Deep within, he found a tangled web of lawyers, spies, bankers and lobbyists, all with one desire: to bury the story.
I. Crooked Business
“A strange company with a lot of strange players in it.”
It’s been two decades since the residents of Lake Charles, Louisiana, learned of a mammoth ethylene dichloride spill leaking from a pipeline between the nearby Condea Vista chemical plant and Conoco oil refinery. The familiar dance of industrial accidents and environmental disasters has since ensued. Court battles waged; damages paid; victims dead or bought-off.
Like the toxins now settled deep in earth, public anger over the episode has receded under layers of compounding health crises as the oil, gas and chemical industries continue expanding in what residents refer to as “the Lake Area.” But secondary effects of the disaster remain. So does outrage at Condea Vista’s efforts to mitigate the damage it caused.
For years after the spill Beckett Brown International infiltrated and illegally spied on activists and lawyers fighting for the rights of people poisoned by Condea Vista, now known as Sasol North America.
On September 9, 2014, a Louisiana state district court judge ruled lawsuits filed against Sasol North America by environmental activist Laura Cox and her father’s law firm, Cox, Cox & Filo, could proceed. The civil complaint alleges that from 1997–2001, Condea Vista paid BBI operatives to wiretap and burglarize the offices of lawyers representing poisoned cleanup workers, including a state senator, as well as hack their emails and steal private information.
“I knew I was being sometimes tailed,” Laura Cox told me. But she wasn’t fully aware of the spies in her midst until John Dodd went public with his company files in 2008.
Cox claims her car with all of her keys was stolen at one point, including those to a number of law firms involved in the cleanup workers’ suit as well as her own home. A BBI job ledger report shows the price it took to copy those keys. Several invoices BBI sent to Condea Vista over the course of 1999 confirm the chemical company’s collusion in what BBI termed the “Lake Charles Project.”
“It was no surprise that we got targeted,” said Michael Tritico, a longtime environmental activist in the region and another BBI target. “We had replaced several entrenched politicians that were supposed to be unbeatable. The [Environmental Protection Agency] had to agree to come here four times a year and meet with the citizens. Things were moving and it had to be stopped.”
The espionage following the chemical spill may have faded from memory in the broader Lake Charles community. But it remains close to the heart of Sasol. Under Louisiana law, the liability faced by the company reaches into billions of dollars.
BBI may have disbanded long ago, but justification for its employment endures. In March of this year, Laura Cox returned to her home in Austin, Texas, from a public meeting in Lake Charles she had filmed regarding the planned expansion of Sasol’s chemical facility. There, she experienced an ominous déjà vu.
“I parked my car in a gated community, where I live,” she said. “They somehow got into my locked car and got my camera equipment with all of my memory cards.”
There were no signs of a break-in.
Industrial espionage is big business.
According to a 2014 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, “estimates of trade secret theft,” conducted by foreign and domestic actors, “range from one to three percent” of America’s annual gross domestic product, or GDP. Using World Bank data from 2013, that puts last year’s low estimate at $168 billion in losses to U.S. companies from corporate espionage.
But corporate surveillance isn’t always a battle for intelligence between Coke and Pepsi. As in the case of Lake Charles, it can involve theft and sabotage targeting groups or individuals that impact a business’s bottom line.
“Most corporate espionage is basically competitors trying to get information by devious means,” said Norm Bowie, a business ethics professor at the University of Minnesota who has viewed some of Dodd’s company files. “So it’s usually a one-on-one competitive situation.”
But BBI was different, he holds. “[They were] in the business of spying. You hired them to do it.”
BBI’s malice wasn’t reserved solely for law firms and activist organizations. Any person or institution that crossed a BBI client could be targeted.
In a tawdry scandal befitting a daytime soap, company operatives instigated a sabotage campaign against a senior saleswoman for Mary Kay Cosmetics. As it happened, an internal competitor of the target was in a romantic relationship with a BBI principal. The two are now married and live in New York.
BBI’s clientele ran the full gamut of industry. The waste-management company Allied Waste, the D.C.-based private equity firm The Carlyle Group, the National Rifle Association, Halliburton, Wal-Mart, Dow Chemical and Monsanto all counted BBI as their go-to spy and security firm.
Its targets had similar variety. Among them were a host of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace; Hebrew Home Advocacy Group; Children’s Hospital in Boston; an employee of the law firm formerly known as LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae; the anti-GE food network, a coalition of groups opposed to genetically modified foods; and even one of the Koch brothers.
“I know that the company had a somewhat unsavory reputation,” said Phil Giraldi, a former counterterrorism specialist with military intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency. Giraldi edited a company newsletter during the late 1990s and was terminated, he believes, because he refused to do espionage or bodyguard work for the company.
“They didn’t know if they were supposed to be cops and robbers or intel and tried to be both,” he said. It was “a strange company with a lot of strange players in it.”
Giraldi wasn’t the only former spook on BBI’s payroll. Its ranks boasted a who’s who of former security officials who could repurpose their skills and cover their tracks for a handsome paycheck. They included veterans of the Secret Service, Maryland State Police and the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Command. One consultant, Vincent Cannistraro, was a confidant of Lt. Col. Oliver North during the CIA’s secret wars in Central America and the Iran-Contra scandal. When I reached him at his office line, he said he had only conducted “due diligence” for BBI.
“This culture of corruption goes back to that Beckett Brown business plan,” John Dodd said in an interview. “The plan that I was shown initially came out of Secret Service financial crimes headquarters, by their regional supervisor, and a number of people from the Secret Service came into the company.”
The business plan delivered to him by former president of the firm Richard Beckett in 1994 is indeed labeled as originating in “USSS FCD/FORGERY.”
Yet industrial espionage can rarely make waves when uncovered. Often there’s a mutual interest between parties to keep the story under wraps, especially when corporate competitors are both involved in the game, or when, as Dodd believes occurred in his case, a nexus of law firms connected to clients of the spy enterprise seek to sweep as many details as possible under a rug.
Dodd thought the crimes of former government officials in BBI would ignite a scandal when he went public in 2008. But aside from some lawsuits and a handful of articles detailing specific clients and targets, the story was subsumed in the 24-hour news cycle.
It’s an odd turn of events given how lurid BBI’s tale is. Unlike the slick, black and white characters of an Ian Fleming or John Le Carré novel, personas in this libretto occupy the gray, mixing equal parts dash and smut. But genre tropes remain: wires tapped, witnesses threatened, documents shredded, computers hacked and sex filmed.
For the first time, using billing records and stolen documents, this story details BBI’s burglary of one Maryland bank and the prominent Baltimore businessman who commissioned the crime. It also reveals how a toxic blend of legal careerism and media negligence scotched Dodd’s quest for justice.
This is how the public got a brief glimpse into the dark world of corporate espionage, and the sacrifices made by the man who showed them the light.
Whistleblower or Resentful Investor?
“John has no money. He’s lost his house and this has become a crusade for him.”
John Dodd spent his entire life outside the halls of power in Washington, D.C. His hometown, the picturesque, colonial town of Easton, is roughly an hour-and-a-half away, resting along the shore of the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s still his home. It’s also the resting place of BBI’s secrets.
Along a georgic tract of Route 50 sits the modest storage facility where Dodd’s BBI files are kept. Stacked from floor to ceiling are hundreds of thousands of documents piled up in boxes, as well as computer hard drives and other reams of information.
Dodd came into possession of the document heap during the twilight of his firm. On a winter Friday in 2001, Chief Operating Officer Brad Andrew alerted Dodd that two company executives were hauling trash bags full of documents out to the company shredder. An email from one executive in Saudi Arabia, sent a few months prior, discussed “sterilizing the office.”
“There were so many items being shredded that the shredder was actually smoking,” Dodd recalls Andrew saying. The following day and into Sunday, Dodd and some trusted lieutenants seized every piece of paper from the office they could. His bounty now gathers dust along the rustic stretch of Maryland highway.
Dodd’s carriage didn’t strike me as that of an investor. An unassuming man with the congenial demeanor of a grandfather, he prefers a tucked-in t-shirt and baseball cap to a suit. Years of conveying his trauma to lawyers, reporters and investigators has given his delivery a mechanical air to it, even as seething indignation can be seen stewing just beneath his eyes.
A mien of paranoia also overshadows his small-town charm. Dodd avows that he’s been followed and bugged. He’s convinced that Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, the law firm he hired to sue former company executives, torpedoed his lawsuit because of the firm’s connections to BBI clients. With each passing year, his belief in a conspiracy against him jells.
Dodd’s motive in implicating his legal counsel as part of a broader campaign has evoked some skepticism. “John has no money. He’s lost his house and this has become a crusade for him,” Norm Bowie told me. “He will pursue this until he dies.”
Richard Beckett, who served as BBI’s president until 1999, admits the company was engaged in criminality but asserts that Dodd was aware of it throughout. “[Dodd] had a falling out with [the other managers] after I left, and he turned on them,” Beckett said. “He knew everything that was going on.”
Beckett also claims that much of the criminal evidence accumulated by Dodd was fabricated.
“A lot of the documents that I’ve seen never existed while I was there,” he contended.
But creating many thousands of consistent documents, a great deal of which include multiple signatures by BBI personnel, is quite the feat for a man in his late sixties. Especially when, as of 2013, Dodd still preferred faxing hand-written notes instead of email due to his limited typing skills.
“I can recall that the first time I went through documents, I found a document… And I know on there, somebody was suspicioning that BBI would be charged with jury tampering,” Lisa Andrew, one of Dodd’s few trusted employees, said. “Right there that sets the tone for what kind of company you’re dealing with.”
Andrew is referencing a memo dated July 7, 2000. It’s written from BBI to a representative of Nichols-Dezenhall, which was then a prominent public relations firm. The memo displays the name of a Dallas attorney who was serving as the jury foreman in the case Pizza Hut, Inc. v. Papa John’s. It proceeds to list his address, date of birth, social security number, his wife’s information and the metadata of all calls he made between January 27 and March 13. When I contacted the foreman for this story, it was the first he had ever heard of being a BBI target.
“I know that you will use great care with this report,” it reads. “There is the possibility of jury tampering on our part.”
At the core of this story are two claims by Dodd. The first is that BBI engaged in a criminal espionage racket from its inception in 1995 until Dodd seized control of the company’s files in 2001. Several authorities, including journalists, courts and former FBI agents, have verified this aspect of the story since Dodd first contacted victims of BBI in 2005.
The second claim is that attorneys from Semmes sabotaged Dodd’s lawsuit in an effort to hide the full details of BBI’s work from the public as part of a cover-up for former clients implicated in the espionage.
This allegation is murkier. Few involved with the fraud lawsuit will talk. But after reviewing details of the case, many red flags support Dodd’s belief that his case was deliberately tanked, albeit for other reasons.
James Johnson, Dodd’s lead attorney, was pursuing a judiciary position during the trial that required approval by political figures close to those directly implicated in at least one BBI operation. Throughout Semmes’s representation of Dodd, a close friend of one of the defendants ran the law firm’s lobbying division. Johnson allegedly scrapped trial strategies without notice. Lead attorneys were perplexingly removed from the case at critical junctures. Important financial figures, prepared by Semmes and expert witnesses, were botched at trial in a manner that would make a first-year law student blush. Key evidence of tax fraud by senior members of BBI was never used. Chief witnesses to the fraud were never deposed or called to testify.
In a sworn statement, Johnson claimed that Dodd’s evidence of corporate espionage was not “convincing” — a belief shared by no one who has given the documents a cursory glance. When Dodd received back the documents shipped to Semmes before trial, some were missing. Others showed clear signs of tampering.
Dodd’s exact role in the story of BBI isn’t easy to discern. He maintains he was seduced into investing in the firm by conmen eager to rip off an inexperienced, small-town businessman. He avows he was unaware of the espionage racket until just before trial. He also claims that he did not discover company fraud until late in his tenure.
If true, business experts consulted for this story consider that evidence of, at best, a willful abdication of Dodd’s oversight responsibilities as chairman of the board.
But Dodd’s backstory lends credence to his claim of naiveté. As detailed in an 88-page timeline of company events prepared by Semmes in 2003, at nearly every turn Dodd’s recollections are supported by documents intended for use in his lawsuit.
In 1994, while sitting on a small fortune from the sale of his father’s beer distribution company, John Dodd was enjoying the quiet life of early retirement in Easton.
He liked trading stories with patrons at the town’s various watering holes. Various inn run-ins acquainted Dodd with an executive recruiter who claimed prior work for the National Security Agency and Naval Special Warfare Command. His name was Richard Beckett.
At first Dodd wasn’t too impressed. Bars are salons of self-aggrandizement. He had encountered enough people to know that a trickle of booze too often unchains their inner charlatan. But Beckett’s alleged past intrigued him. When it became clear to Beckett that Dodd was sitting on cash to spend, Dodd said that Beckett began speaking of plans to build a diverse company, combining executive search and private security, from the Rolodex of security officials and corporate contacts he maintained.
Eventually Beckett arranged a meeting between Dodd and two security officials who would become crucial operators in BBI: Paul Rakowski and Joe Masonis. Rakowski was a veteran of the Secret Service and a regional supervisor for its financial crimes division. Masonis was a member of the Service’s technical security division. At the time, he still served in that capacity.
Beckett and his cohort made several attempts to woo Dodd over the course of the next year. Their favored tactic was private tours of the White House. During one, Dodd alleges he was able to view the Secret Service’s “war room,” including a radar station tailored to detect the possibility of a foreign agent parachuting onto the White House roof.
Dodd’s solicitors had more than impressive toys at their disposal. Famous investors and clients lay in waiting, he was told.
Paul Rakowski allegedly said that he had gone through National Guard basic training with multimillionaire publisher and Republican political candidate Steve Forbes, and the two had developed a bond. Correspondence between Rakowski and Forbes confirms an amicable relationship. Dodd was also told that Dan D’aniello, Beckett’s acquaintance and chairman of the George H.W. Bush-connected private equity firm, The Carlyle Group, would be putting up 50 percent of the start-up capital.
Dodd was escorted on multiple visits to Carlyle headquarters, putting him in proximity to some of the capital’s more famous powerbrokers, including former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and former Secretary of State James Baker. It was a Washington sycophant’s perfect wine-and-dine.
As negotiations continued in July of 1995, Dodd was invited to a garish party at Richard Beckett’s waterfront home, complete with a handful of Secret Service agents as well as two men that would become key players in the company and the drama yet to unfold: Tim Ward and Jim Kerr. Ward was a 10-year veteran of the Maryland State Police. Kerr was a certified accountant and friend of Beckett, later to become the company’s “independent” accountant. Dodd now believes that the house was rented solely for that gathering.
It worked. BBI was incorporated in Maryland the following month.
All of the men who were set to run the company checked out to Dodd’s lawyers except Richard Beckett. Dodd surveyed the resumes of proposed company principals but said he never received his. When Dodd would inquire, he claims he was repeatedly told that Beckett was an accredited accountant, auditor and successful executive recruiter.
In a July 1995 meeting, Dodd asked Rakowski for more information on Beckett’s background. Rakowski allegedly brushed Dodd off with assurances that he had done due diligence on Beckett while still at the Secret Service, using the agency’s “extraordinary capabilities” to perform background checks, as Dodd recalls the language employed. Dodd said Rakowski also said the company would lose a contract for Steve Forbes’s 1996 presidential run and a big deal with CSX Railroad, both supposedly in the pipeline, if Dodd dragged his feet any longer.
As each tightened screw ground him down, more discouraging news reached Dodd’s desk: D’aniello would no longer be participating. (Correspondence from D’aniello to Forbes reveals he had precluded Carlyle investment in BBI as early as December 1994.) But by then much time and energy had been invested in the company’s prospects and the clock was ticking.
On August 16, 1995, BBI was incorporated with Masonis, Rakowski, Dodd and Beckett as initial directors. But a week later, a harbinger occurred.
According to the stockholder’s agreement, Masonis and Rakowski were in charge of operations. Rakowski would implement securities controls due to his extensive work solving financial crimes with the Secret Service. Beckett would be president and chief of marketing, thanks to his valuable list of potential clientele.
Each of the four stockholders was to present $10,000 upon signing. But Beckett didn’t cough up his ante. Sam Brown, the attorney overseeing the agreement and from whom the Brown in Beckett Brown is derived, quickly drew up a promissory note to give him an extension. When it was later discovered that Beckett failed to pay his share by the due date, Dodd had to loan an additional $120,000 to the company, accounting for interest.
As Dodd would learn later, Beckett’s inability to summon the cash was another notch in a long belt. His financial past included federal and state liens, bankruptcies and civil judgments against him. His history, easily accessible to Rakowski and Kerr, should have aroused suspicion, although neither reported any knowledge of the matter. They claimed quite the contrary, Dodd said. But as Dodd belatedly recognized, allowing Beckett to pick company staff provided little in the way of checks and balances.
Just six years later, Dodd was left to pick up the pieces of a firm crushed by top-heavy corruption and fraud.
“He told me he was just trying to shake me down.”
By 2001, John Dodd was sure he had a compelling case of fraud against former executives in the firm. Independent auditors concluded in their assessment that “management, which included several of the shareholders, created fraudulent sales in order to borrow additional funds from a bank” to “finance excessive expenses for officer salaries…and commission payments” for the preceding year.
As later accounting would yield, BBI was a ponzi scheme and personal piggybank for its managers from the get-go. According to Lisa Andrew, BBI’s late bookkeeper, petty fraud was a matter of routine. For example, executives “would submit a cash receipt for reimbursement for a meal to the company, and then a few weeks later would submit the same receipt, although it would be a copy, and get reimbursed for it,” she said.
But their most lucrative gambit was the bank-lapping scheme, alluded to by the auditor. It arose through participation in the Business Manager Program of the local Talbot Bank.
Until enrollment in the program on January 12, 1999, Dodd says he was receiving financial statements blaming the company’s cash-flow problems on slow-paying customers. The terms of the deal, as presented to him, were that BBI would send invoices to Talbot Bank. The bank would reimburse BBI immediately with 80 percent, eventually to be repaid to the bank by the BBI client. The arrangement offered a useful stopgap measure for the supposed nuisance of tardy remuneration.
But BBI executives, according to outside accountants’ reports, used the deal as another mode of pillaging. Through an oral agreement between BBI and Talbot Bank at time of registration, which Dodd claims he was unaware of, BBI was responsible for alerting clients as to where and when the money should be repaid, not the bank. Under the scheme, BBI routinely billed clients late or sometimes not at all, often for unfulfilled services, while receiving cash on demand from Talbot Bank by submitting fraudulent invoices.
Dodd claims that the scheme was only able to go on for as long as it did because he naively relied on management for information regarding the firm’s day-to-day operations—negligent behavior he soon came to regret.
By late 1999, Dodd says he was distressed with BBI’s losses. In his periodic updates from Beckett and Rakowski, he says that each would repeatedly harangue about one another, claiming the other was responsible for the company’s financial woes. On August 12 of that year, Dodd organized a summit to clear the air between the two and discuss the company’s financial position and prospects.
Dodd says he was told of July’s numbers at that meeting. They showed an inexplicable $70,000 profit for that month alone — a far cry from the losses that BBI had been accruing in the preceding months. Incredulous, Dodd says he inquired whether all of the revenues had been matched up with expenses. Rakowski fell silent, while Beckett became enraged at his line of questioning. Beckett allegedly got up and left the scene, offering his resignation four days later.
That meeting signaled the demise of BBI. Over the next four months, Beckett fought to sell his stake in the company and be rid of any liabilities. Dodd says Beckett also offered to buy BBI’s executive search division and threatened that if his offer was not accepted he would go public with company improprieties.
With something clearly amiss, Dodd says he then alerted Rakowski and Ward that the company’s books required an immediate audit. He was rebuffed, ostensibly due to the confidential nature of BBI’s business. Customers would flee in droves if news of an audit broke. He says he was then informed by Rakowski that Beckett “was robbing the company blind,” but that the schemes had been discovered and patched up.
“He told me [Beckett] was just trying to shake me down,” Dodd recalls. To Dodd, a military veteran with respect for authority and government institutions, Rakowski was a man he could trust. As BBI’s treasurer and a former supervisor in the Secret Service’s financial crimes division, Rakowski was in an unparalleled position to know if fraud was afoot and put a stop to it.
But suspicions of Rakowski soon began to mount. In early April of 2000, Dodd received a call from the company accountant, Jim Kerr, with regards to an earlier topic of discussion: Richard Beckett’s W-2 form. According to Dodd, Kerr revealed that the now-departed Beckett had never notified the Internal Revenue Service of thousands of dollars in commission payments, essentially committing tax fraud. Kerr allegedly advised him not to open up that can of worms, noting that other company principals had done so as well and that Dodd was in a compromised position as chairman of the board — a similar warning to the one received from Beckett when Dodd refused to sell him portions of BBI. Dodd claims he asked for specific names, but Kerr demurred.
Over the next few months, the books were reevaluated and gains converted to losses. Turnover plagued the company as executives jumped ship upon seeing the iceberg slowly approach in their scopes. Rakowski and Ward lobbied strenuously to be released from their shares of bank debt and stock, as Beckett had done. New deals were eventually reached limiting their liabilities. To this day, Dodd maintains that he only signed off on the new agreements because he was receiving cooked books indicating that BBI was consecutively showing meager profit, and he was hopeful to turn the company around.
At the time, Dodd sought to bring into the company Brad Andrew, the coal-mine canary who would later inform him that documents were being minced. Buying Beckett’s stock seemed like a perfect way to free up some for Andrew. “The releases, as I understood [them]…would apply only if everything was on the up-and-up,” Dodd maintains. “I reluctantly signed the releases thinking if we did discover fraud, those releases would be null-and-void.”
That decision would come to haunt Dodd when he succumbed to dubious and, as he would later allege, duplicitous advice from his attorneys in preparation for trial.
“He told me to guard that tape with my life.”
By 2001, John Dodd’s auditors had collected much of the evidence necessary to sue BBI executives and the company accountant who failed to detect the fraud. He says he was advised to seek counsel outside of Talbot County, eventually approaching Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, based in Baltimore. Beckett, Rakowski, Ward and Kerr had long lists of skilled legal teams they would contact. Nothing should be left to chance, Dodd says the auditor counseled.
Dodd recalls his initial excitement. In a conversation with Semmes’ then-chairman, Dodd says he was told that the entire lawsuit would cost roughly $100,000. Despite the hefty price, it seemed worth it given the approximate $700,000 he had sunk into BBI’s house of cards. Dodd believed that with much of the fraud evidence already gathered, Semmes’ legal team didn’t require a lot to get the ball rolling. Assigned a young but capable attorney by the name of Mark Grimes, the two began to prepare.
In 2002, Grimes had all but 12 boxes from Dodd’s document collection shipped to Semmes’ main office for examination. Dodd says he did not see those boxes again until just before trial. Dodd maintains that during this period he was kept incessantly busy by Semmes and had no real incentive to comb through the trove.
But the crown jewel of the case wasn’t evidence of corporate espionage. It was an incriminating message left by Richard Beckett. On April 19, 2000, just a few weeks after Dodd had spoken to Kerr regarding Beckett’s tax evasion, Beckett left a menacing communique on Dodd’s answering machine:
“John, this is Richard. I got a call from Jim [Kerr] about this W-2 which I’m very upset about, and Baker Botts [Beckett’s legal counsel] is upset about and you’ll be hearing from them. But you need to remind Tim [Ward] that he received a car allowance of $1,000 a month for three years while he was also reimbursed for his automobile expenses and he better claim that because I’m calling the IRS to report it. Among other things, he received $3,000 in legal fees from us, he received a $4,000 loan that he didn’t repay — it all should be done. If you guys are going to be righteous, it’s got to be across the board. And there’s going to be a lot of other issues with Paul [Rakowski], his expenses, and other things. So, if you guys want to do this, that’s fine with me. But I’m not going to be the only one who suffers. Have a good day.”
According to Dodd, Grimes referred to the message as “the smoking gun.” Not only was Beckett admitting to fraudulent practices, he was also alleging that Rakowski and Ward similarly scammed the IRS. If Dodd could prove that management had defrauded the government, it would be easier to convince a jury that he, too, had been swindled.
“[Grimes] told me to guard that tape with my life,” Dodd says.
Yet Grimes puzzlingly left the case not long after. Following multiple inquiries from Dodd, his new attorneys allegedly relayed that Grimes had been poaching Semmes’ clients and setting up a side practice, for which he was promptly sacked.
Juanita Hopkins, a lawyer and friend who helped advise Dodd after his lawsuit, says that Grimes explicitly denied the accusation in conversation with her after trial. “You could have heard a pin drop,” she explained to me. “[Grimes] said, ‘that is absolutely false. That is not true at all.’”
When asked about Grimes’s sudden departure, Jim Johnson wouldn’t elaborate except to say that to this day the two maintain good relations. Mark Grimes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
With Grimes gone, Dodd was ping-ponged from attorney to attorney in quick succession. He eventually landed on James Johnson, a Semmes partner, with junior attorney Guido Porcarelli assisting. (Porcarelli declined to comment on the case.)
Dodd says he was always troubled by Johnson’s lack of confidence in the suit compared to that of his predecessors. From the date it was filed, Johnson told Dodd he would have to find new counsel if he insisted that Beckett be named as a co-defendant. Dodd had already been billed hefty sums by Semmes; new attorneys were out of the question. His legal team concluded there was ultimately enough evidence to sue Rakowski, Ward and Kerr, especially with the “smoking gun” message.
“To get [Beckett’s] stock back, I signed releases. It would have been difficult to win this lawsuit without having to fight that,” Dodd recollects Johnson as advising. “I kept trying to get him to name Beckett as a defendant… But Johnson was totally against that.”
Dodd says he presumed Beckett would be called onto the stand as a witness, if simply a hostile one. Beckett and the other executives had a falling out prior to his departure and no party had a monopoly on accusing the other. Sitting back and letting the jury watch sparks fly was bound to work in Dodd’s favor, he fancied.
But Beckett had a bestial trick up his sleeve.
Mutts, Lies & Videotape
“Mr. Dodd proceeded to have us watch a tape of a dog having sex with a woman.”
On November 4, 2003, attorneys for the plaintiff and defense deposed Richard Beckett. There wasn’t much shock initially. On matters where Beckett was culpable as the former president, he pleaded ignorance or hazy memory. When confronted with his own signature, he questioned the authenticity of many documents. He stated that he discovered BBI operatives were engaging in “dumpster diving,” claiming to disapprove of it. And he asserted that Dodd was overseeing all of the finances, was intricately involved with management of the company and was thus liable for all of the fraud.
It was an artful, if foreseeable, defense. But Beckett’s proclaimed reason for leaving the company then sent shockwaves through the room.
“The straw that broke my back was one day, Mr. Dodd summoned me to the conference room,” Beckett calmly stated. “Mr. Dodd proceeded to have us watch a tape of a dog having sex with a woman.”
Johnson, who was asking the questions at that point in the deposition, quickly proceeded to the next. But the damage was done, especially since the event occurred.
“Rakowski and Beckett told me they and then-current Secret Service agents had heard rumors about the dog-woman sex tape and wanted to see it, if it existed, because Rakowski knew the woman,” Dodd claims. According to Dodd’s description, Beckett and Rakowski begged him to get a copy of the tape because the woman worked at a restaurant that the two frequented in the nearby town of St. Michaels, where Rakowski lived.
“Having lived in Talbot County all my life except for college and two years in the Army, I know a lot of people in the area and was able to borrow a copy from a friend of a friend,” Dodd said.
(This report has been unable to corroborate either party’s version of events.)
Johnson had a plausible excuse not to call Beckett to the stand: protecting Dodd’s image. It didn’t end up helping him; the defense quoted that portion of Beckett’s deposition at trial nonetheless. And Dodd says that Johnson never countered the defense’s claims with evidence that Beckett perjured himself during the deposition.
First, Beckett claimed that he “may have” left the threatening message on Dodd’s answering machine after he “had a couple beers” at “night,” under the assumption that he “thought he was talking to Mr. Dodd.” The message, as indicated in the audio hyperlinked above, was left in the late morning. And there are no breaks in Beckett’s speech for anyone to respond.
As Johnson questioned him about the litany of former companies he had that went under, Beckett was asked whether he had ever heard of a company known as Beckett and Brown International. “I don’t ever remember any Beckett and Brown International,” he answered, before quickly backtracking. “Maybe I’m wrong. I know I’ve been wrong before.”
Indeed he was. On company check #237, showing $2,596 to Richard Beckett for “Payroll,” signed by and endorsed by him, he wrote beneath the endorsement, “pay to the order of Beckett & Brown Int’l.” On company check #243, also written to himself but with the memo section left blank, he likewise had it paid out to his other company. Dodd says that the routing numbers on the back didn’t correspond with any of BBI’s accounts. The documents in Dodd’s trove are littered with references to other Beckett companies with names like Beckett Brown & Associates and Beckett & Brown Associates.
And what did Beckett know about a company called 207 Associates? “We used [it] to pay our undercover people,” he responded. Did it ever send invoices to customers? “No.”
Yet on May 30, 1997, an invoice for $19,700 was sent to United Payors & United Providers Inc. from 207 Associates. Though unsigned, it states that payment should be remitted to the attention of “Mellony Beckett [sic],” Richard’s wife, and sent to a drop box in Easton. (Melanie’s name is found on many of Beckett’s suspicious checks.) The bill cryptically says the services provided ranged from “Market Research” to “Protocol Development for Intake.”
According to the corresponding internal job number (#97–0007), the actual service provided was “Investigation.” Indeed, an after-action report written by BBI operative George Ferris discussing his “lessons learned” from that project included “obtain[ing] a false ID” and securing a “credential card machine,” as well as “form generating software,” to “assist in ‘office visits.’”
Ferris, who also used the alias “George Cody,” was one of BBI’s top black operators. A U.S. Navy special operations officer specializing in explosives ordinance disposal, I was unable to reach Ferris for this article. But in a 2006 paper written for the National Defense Intelligence College, he’s listed as a weapons branch chief at the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism. According to knowledgeable sources, he currently works for Imagine One Technologies as a contractor at the Department of Homeland Security.
Ferris’s skills proved valuable for a wide range of projects, especially one contracted out of Baltimore in 1998. Contrary to what Beckett had claimed in his deposition about his own role within the company, records from that operation revealed the “executive recruiter” was supervising black-bag jobs from the beginning.
The Bank-Robbing Banker
“I don’t think we’ve ever represented Ed Hale.”
A few months before trial commenced, Dodd says he found his first example of hard evidence linking BBI to the criminal espionage he had seen allusions to in some of the paperwork. The documents came from a case file on a job conducted over the course of March 1998.
Billing records confirm that on May 28, 1998, BBI received payment from the Baltimore law firm Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver for project #625–001–98, described as “Re: Hale 2/19/98–3/12/98.”
Performed on behalf of Edwin F. Hale (client #625), a former CIA agent and then-CEO and chairman of First Mariner Bank, the job was to pilfer proprietary information from the Bank of Glen Burnie related to its financial condition and investors. At the time, Hale was involved in a hostile takeover attempt of the smaller competitor.
Richard Beckett’s work logs for the date before BBI began the project show two and half hours spent in transit to Baltimore for a meeting with Ed Hale and Joseph Cicero, First Mariner Bank’s president at the time (“Meeting – Balto – Hale/Cicero”). Between February 23 and March 16, numerous work logs for George Ferris display several tasks completed for project #625–001–98, including “on-site survey,” “info collection/analysis,” and even the purchase of surgical gloves — all of which Beckett had initialed. Tim Ward’s handwritten notes from the job were included in the case file.
So were multiple proprietary documents belonging to the Bank of Glen Burnie: a Daily Statement of Condition, which contains a bank’s financial position, as well as lists of investor votes from its 1998 annual proxy meeting.
After contacting Ober Kaler’s accounting department to ask about those records, I was passed on to the billing attorney on file for Hale, Frank C. Bonaventure. “I don’t think we’ve ever represented Ed Hale,” Bonaventure said. In follow-up correspondence seeking clarity on that point, Bonaventure said, “we are not at liberty to discuss representation.”
SEC filings confirm Ober Kaler acted as counsel to Hale in his initial purchase of Glen Burnie Bank stock months before trying to wrest control, and during First Mariner Bank’s subsequent legal feud with the petite financial institution.
Messages left with the Bank of Glen Burnie and Hale’s secretary seeking comment were not returned.
Dodd says he quickly called his counsel. He claims that Johnson told him the documents would be very handy as evidence and would incense a local jury familiar with the target bank. But when he faxed the documents to Johnson about two months before trial, Dodd says Johnson never addressed them again.
There was a distressful aspect to the Glen Burnie documents beyond their apparent provenance. They included a newspaper clipping discussing Hale’s attempts to sway investor votes within the Bank of Glen Burnie, on which a troubling fax stamp was present. Semmes had sent BBI the document several years before Dodd retained the firm as his counsel.
The documents originated from an old friend of Paul Rakowski. “American Joe” Miedusiewski, a former Maryland state senator and Semmes’ public affairs director since 1995, had an longstanding relationship with Rakowski.
According to Rakowski’s travel and expense logs, the two met over several BBI-sponsored lunches during the company’s existence. A BBI memo to Miedusiewski indicates that he had been solicited as either an investor or participant in the company before it was incorporated. Rakowski and Miedusiewski’s ties dated back to high school.
But connections between a law firm’s lobbying division and its legal clients don’t constitute a conflict of interest, James Johnson says.
“If someone was a friend of somebody else’s and they’re not a lawyer on the case, I’m not sure it would,” he added. “Not unless [Miedusiewski] was an attorney on the case.”
However, as demonstrated at trial, Dodd’s suspicions about his counsel were not entirely misplaced.
Accounting For Negligence
“That’s about a $800,000 mistake, isn’t it sir?”
Semmes hired two seasoned experts to testify at trial. It paid forensic accountant Robert Garvey to go through all of BBI’s books from the company’s inception, and to evaluate Jim Kerr’s accounting. If BBI was cooking the books, as concluded in earlier evaluations, Kerr’s duty as the independent accountant was to detect any improprieties and alert the board of directors, chaired by Dodd.
Garvey’s report found that Kerr violated no fewer than four tenets of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Code of Professional Conduct, which governs the professional standards of CPAs.
Kerr breached Rule 102, pertaining to “Conflict[s] of Interest” by “prepar[ing] Richard Beckett’s personal income tax returns,” “represent[ing] him before the IRS,” serving as a “vice president of [another] company owned by Beckett,” as well as being listed as “Beckett’s bookkeeper in a bankruptcy filing by Beckett and his wife.” Garvey also found Kerr was “providing [similar] professional services for Masonis and Rakowski.”
The report went on. “Kerr and his staff were aware of the cash collection issues and the [suspect] method used to record invoices. Kerr was also aware that payroll tax reporting forms and W-2 forms filed by his firm on behalf of [BBI], its officers and employees were incorrect,” it said, proceeding to list examples of each. As the coup de grâce, Garvey found Kerr culpable in aiding or abetting tax fraud by Rakowski, Beckett and Masonis.
When Garvey took the stand, Dodd was sure that his testimony would clinch the case. But in a chart that Garvey prepared with substantial input and review by Semmes, a mistake was highlighted upon cross examination.
The chart calculated the amount of retainer Kerr had recorded as income. Garvey alleged the accounting trick had misleadingly inflated BBI’s revenues.
Using Kerr’s financial statements, Garvey found that BBI had lost $868,496 in the month of December 1996 alone. Kerr’s attorney, employing a 12-month statement for that year, deducted the year-to-date November profits from the year-to-date December profits to calculate the monthly numbers for December.
“Doesn’t that tell us that the company lost in December 1996 somewhere around $70,000?” the defense inquired. “That’s a long way off from $868,000… That’s about a $800,000 mistake, isn’t it sir?”
Garvey maintained that he had used the numbers from the December monthly financial statement. He was provided with time during recess to summon that document, but couldn’t produce it by the time court resumed.
“I looked at the date I have with me and I couldn’t come to a sensible explanation for [the mistake], no, sir,” Garvey resentfully admitted on the stand. Despite the fact that Garvey’s other calculations were correct, and the fraud and conflict of interest he documented extended far beyond the final month of 1996, his credibility had been destroyed.
Dodd paid Garvey’s firm $400,000 for his services. Robert Garvey did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Turnaround or Runaround?
“Dodd does demonstrate, from time to time, paranoid [beliefs]”
The plaintiffs called a second expert witness, John Collard, to testify.
A “Certified Turnaround Professional” according to his CV, Collard specializes in “recover[ing] assets [and] restor[ing] value to troubled portfolio companies.” Prior to his current work, Collard served as an executive director and vice president in Computer Sciences Corporation and Martin Marietta, both major defense contractors. (The latter firm merged with the Lockheed Corporation in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin.) Other professional highlights included advising Presidents Bush I, Bush II and Clinton, as well as Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Like many of the spooks that worked for BBI, Collard holds a top security clearance.
Collard’s responsibilities to Dodd’s team were outlined in a 2003 agreement signed with then-lead attorney Ken Knuckey. According to the agreement, Collard would provide consulting services regarding matters related to the litigation but “no specific deliverables” were guaranteed, including expert testimony.
In June of that year, after Knuckey had left Semmes, Jim Johnson, Dodd’s new attorney, modified the agreement to make clear that Collard “would be taking [his] instruction from Semmes, Bowen &  Semmes [sic],” according to a summary of facts in the judgment from Collard’s later lawsuit against Dodd for back pay.
(During and after trial, Dodd failed to pay Collard his contractually agreed-upon fees. Collard later sued Dodd and won.)
“[Collard’s] specific assignment was to explain to the jury the mismanagement of [BBI], by addressing the management’s shortcomings and explaining what the managers and directors of the company had done improperly,” the judgment reads. Johnson designated Collard as an expert who would testify as a “turnaround professional” at trial and notified the defense. In a deposition, Collard clarified that although he had served as just such an expert witness in a separate case, it was settled before trial and thus he had never actually testified as one.
But the defense filed a pre-trial motion limiting what Collard could thereby testify to, preventing him from making any legal conclusions about BBI’s mismanagement and misrepresentation.
While hampered in what he could say, Collard was scheduled to take the stand on August 15, 2005. When Johnson offered him as an expert “turnaround professional” in court, the defense questioned his qualifications. The judge noted having never heard of a “turnaround professional.” He promptly threw Collard off of the witness stand.
Dodd believes that, as part of a cover-up by Semmes, Collard was paid hefty sums for testimony that his lawyers should have known would be inadmissible. Collard counters that Dodd is simply distraught the case didn’t go his way.
“[Dodd] had his day in court, he was legally represented by one of the better firms in Baltimore. But he lost that case,” Collard said. “If we were Monday morning quarterbacking this, if the question is, ‘could things be different?’ Well then yes they could.”
Collard maintains that Dodd’s case for displaying misrepresentation, mismanagement or fraud was always slim. The only aspect that came close, he says, was when management alleged solvency while signing up for the Talbot Bank Business Manager Program.
“The misrepresentation was between the management of the company and the bank. There was no misrepresentation at that point between management and Dodd because Dodd didn’t do anything based on it,” Collard said. Dodd disputes Collard’s diagnosis, but both concur that in meetings Collard broached the idea of purchasing the bank loan, which would’ve made misrepresentation to the bank a misrepresentation to Dodd.
“I remember something about that vaguely…and [Semmes] said no. They said it wouldn’t help me,” Dodd insists.
Like Johnson claimed after trial, Collard also believes Dodd’s allegations of corporate espionage amount to hot air.
“Dodd does demonstrate, from time to time, paranoid [beliefs],” Collard says.
When asked why he was brought to testify for the plaintiff in a case that he believed did not reach the bar for displaying either misrepresentation, mismanagement or fraud, Collard responded, “you’d have to talk to Mr. Johnson.”
Worse Than Incompetence
“[Johnson] couldn’t seem to stay focused”
Many of Johnson’s other trial tactics raised Dodd’s eyebrow. No deposition was ever taken of Talbot Bank, nor were any Talbot Bank representatives ever called to testify despite the fact that the “bank-lapping” scheme was one of the central dimensions of fraud. 64 instances of Rakowski double-dipping on expenses were never raised. A deposition of Eric Pikus — Tim Ward’s brother-in-law and head of BBI’s recruiting division — in which he admitted to wiretapping never entered the court record. (Pikus denied requests for comment on this story.) And the 200 some boxes of documents detailing BBI’s criminal espionage sat in the back of the courtroom everyday, untouched.
Luckily Dodd still had the “smoking gun” message from Beckett. Johnson allegedly kept contending it was to be saved for the trial’s final round. “I took that answering machine into court every day,” Dodd laments. It too never graced the jury’s ears.
The defense successfully argued that Richard Beckett, who wasn’t a co-defendant, perpetrated all of the fraud. They claimed that Dodd was aware or should have been aware of Beckett’s swindling, citing half a dozen meetings between the two. Johnson never disputed their defense with evidence that Rakowski had met with Beckett more than 300 times. Nor did Johnson ever call Beckett to testify.
The judge, Raymond E. Beck, dismissed all of the fraud counts on August 16, 2005, as well as Dodd’s personal claims since they were “derivative” of the company’s claims. The jury made quick work of what was left nine days later.
“[Johnson] couldn’t seem to stay focused” at trial, said Juanita Hopkins. “I don’t know whether he had physical woes or was overwhelmed. It could have been a combination of all kinds of things.”
With the trial over in 2005 and Jim Johnson’s threats fresh in his mind, Dodd was reminded of the very first batch of corporate espionage documents he uncovered and sent to Semmes’ office — the Glen Burnie bank deeds displaying Semmes’ fax stamp. Over the course of several discussions with Johnson related to back pay, Dodd claims he repeatedly asked if Ed Hale was ever a client of Semmes. He said that after multiple deflections, Johnson responded in the affirmative.
Johnson refused to disclose the content of that discussion. I have been unable to find publicly available information confirming that Hale was ever a Semmes client.
Dodd remains convinced that the firm’s alleged connections to Hale and American Joe’s relationship with Rakowski influenced Johnson’s conduct during the case.
But personal ambition can be just as damaging as any conspiracy.
Dodd says that at one point during preparation for the trial in 2004, Johnson invited him up to Annapolis for lunch on Semmes’ dime. There, Johnson allegedly relayed that he might be leaving Semmes to pursue a judgeship, but that he would ensure Dodd retained competent counsel if Johnson was nominated.
According to Maryland law, applicants for bench vacancies must submit their candidacy to a judicial nominating commission comprised of gubernatorial appointees for the given county or appellate court to which they’re applying. If the commission nominates them, they’re then sent to the governor for approval.
Court records confirm Johnson submitted himself first to the Court of Special Appeals at some point before March 15, 2004, and then again for two separate vacancies in Anne Arundel County, on the circuit court and district court sometime before September 22 and August 22 of 2005, respectively. Dodd’s trial began on August 1 and ended with the jury verdict on August 25.
In 2003, the first Republican governor of Maryland in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., caused a stir by naming several conservative appointees to local and statewide judicial nominating committees. To the nominating panel for Anne Arundel County, Ehrlich appointed J. William Pitcher, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist who ran his own firm.
According to the Baltimore Business Journal, after Ehrlich took office, the Baltimore-based firm Ober Kaler wanted to have access in Annapolis without opening a branch. It opted for a “strategic alliance” with Pitcher whereby Ober Kaler would refer clients with lobbying needs his way.
Ober Kaler didn’t have to work hard to get the governor’s ear. When Ehrlich had graduated from law school, his first gig was with Ober Kaler’s litigation team. Upon leaving office in 2007, Ehrlich opened a Baltimore branch of a prominent out-of-state law firm with some top aides as well as his personal attorney, David B. Hamilton, who was also then a principal at Ober Kaler.
And what was David B. Hamilton, business partner to Anne Arundel judicial nominating committee member J. William Pitcher and aide to Governor Ehrlich, up to during BBI’s existence?
In 1998, he was acting as counsel for First Mariner Bank in its legal tussle with the Bank of Glen Burnie.
Hamilton did not return messages seeking comment. James Johnson was not available to answer questions on this point by time of publication. But Johnson, in subsequent court documents, denied seeing any evidence of criminality among the trove of papers Dodd sent his way and brought into court throughout trial.
In a 2009 affidavit, Johnson maintained that “[d]uring the investigation, discovery and preparation for trial, Mr. Dodd suggested that company employees had engaged in wrongdoing, including dumpster diving to obtain discarded documents. None of the ‘evidence’ which he collected appeared convincing.”
But when former FBI Agent Stanley C. Los Jr. surveyed BBI’s documents, he reached different conclusions.
“During my review it became obvious, based on my training and experience, that the operators of BBI had been engaged in numerous criminal acts in connection with gathering information for their clients,” Los declared for the court on July 6, 2009. “The criminal activities ranged from apparent burglaries, thefts of records, [to] violations of interception of communications statutes.”
“I guess that’s what happens when you put all your trust in some people.”
After John Dodd started scouring his documents following his botched trial, BBI’s criminal enterprise came into full view. The sheer volume of targets led Dodd to assume that, after notifying them, a lawsuit would be filed and the story would reach the public.
“I was hoping to get the truth out about this whole scandal and to get justice for the victims, including myself,” he said.
But Dodd’s credulity in the face of apparently sympathetic lawyers would yet again come back to haunt him.
One of the first victims Dodd reached out to was Mars Chocolate. Mars had been the subject of BBI spying on behalf of Nestlé, the competing chocolate giant, as later detailed by reporter Eamon Javers in his book, Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage.
According to several sources working with Dodd during this period, on September 22, 2006, he phoned Mars’ headquarters. He says the company’s general counsel was on the phone within a minute of disclosing that he possessed confidential Mars information.
After sending a 20-page fax with a slice of the Mars documents, Dodd says he was asked if a legal team from Mars’ law firm, Williams & Connolly (W&C), could come examine all of the records he had in storage. According to Juanita Hopkins, who was working with Dodd by this point, they told Mars that the request could only be granted if they received guarantees that no connections or relationships between W&C and Semmes existed. Dodd says they later received those assurances.
Negar Tekeei, then heading W&C’s expeditionary unit, arrived at Dodd’s house on October 16, 2006. According to multiple people present at that meeting, Tekeei again told Dodd that there were no compromising links between W&C and Semmes.
For three straight weeks, Tekeei and her team had full access to the cache while conducting taped interviews of Dodd and other witnesses on site. W&C combed through the documents for over a year. Overall, Dodd estimates that he spent thousands of hours assisting the law firm with its investigation. Emails from Tekeei confirm W&C was paying for use of Dodd’s storage unit during this period.
Early on, Dodd was encouraged with promises of a lawsuit in the works. According to the sworn affidavit of Maureen Rogers, Dodd’s former girlfriend who assisted W&C with the files, Tekeei led her “to believe a major lawsuit would be filed by Mars” and “told [her] on multiple occasions that it was impossible [Semmes] did not know about the stolen documents due to the quantity and length of time spent reviewing them as well as the number of lawyers assigned to Dodd’s case.”
Dodd believed the story was on the verge of entering the public record. Once the legal team returned to Washington, Dodd says W&C partner David Forkner contacted him for a meeting. At that meeting, Forkner, yet again, allegedly relayed that no compromising ties were present for W&C.
“[Forkner] assured me that there was no conflict of interest and that it would be fine to proceed,” said Hopkins, who attended the meeting.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Dodd’s name would be reclaimed and the cover-up exposed. But when Dodd attempted to talk to Tekeei during a phone call placed by Hopkins in 2008, Tekeei allegedly told her that she had been instructed not to speak to Dodd then or anytime in the future. Astounded, Dodd convinced himself it had something to do with Mars’ impending lawsuit.
Yet when Hopkins contacted Forkner that summer about finding Dodd an attorney for his legal malpractice suit against Semmes, Forkner allegedly gave an astonishing answer: He couldn’t because W&C represented Semmes’ legal malpractice insurance carrier.
Tekeei and Forkner both declined to comment for this story.
Of the tens of thousands of documents taken from Dodd by W&C, only several thousand were given back—10 months after being swiped. They were in total disarray, with no accounting provided for what was taken or what was returned. Dodd estimates W&C stole thousands of documents that didn’t belong to Mars.
“We had trust in them,” Hopkins ruefully conceded. “I guess that’s what happens when you put all your trust in some people.”
Yet the alleged deception by W&C attorneys need not have been the result of a conspiracy, tacit or otherwise, to keep Dodd’s story from sunlight. W&C is a massive firm with offices all around the world and layers of professional connections stretching into all walks of life. It’s plausible that at the time, W&C attorneys were simply unaware of the Semmes connection.
Still, why would W&C cover for a client who was illegally spied on and could exact significant sums from a lawsuit?
According to the relevant chapter of Javers’ book on corporate espionage, the company that had contracted BBI, Nestlé, didn’t have very clean hands of its own.
In late 1997, anonymous sources began contacting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consumer advocacy groups, media personnel and even the White House with dossiers claiming that Nestlé’s new “Magic” candies were unsafe because they combined candy and toys, leaving children vulnerable to choking, though no such victims could ever be found. Many suspected this campaign, which led to a flurry of negative press exposure for Nestlé, was conducted by Mars to prevent the European company from encroaching on the U.S. market. A lawsuit would have exposed the tit-for-tat chocolate skirmish, leaving the faces of all parties brown.
Broke and exhausted, Dodd spent what little time he had left compiling all he could from the mess returned to him by W&C. The statute of limitations for legal malpractice would expire on August 25, 2008, he thought: three years to the day after the Easton jury made its decision. With many of his documents in chaos and few attorneys he could afford or willing to take his case, Dodd filed a malpractice lawsuit pro se against Semmes on August 22.
But Judge Beck had dismissed Dodd’s personal claims along with the fraud counts on August 16, 2005, a week before his judgment on Dodd’s lawsuit claims as the company, since Dodd was the sole proprietor of BBI (then S2i).
Dodd missed the cutoff by just short of a week.
Big Story, Little Interest
“Wilke told us it was the biggest corporate scandal in U.S. history.”
Over the course of their work with W&C, Dodd and his team continued to contact BBI’s victims. In 2007, Dodd reached out to Dale Wiehoff, vice president for communications at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Taco Bell had contracted BBI to infiltrate a coalition of environmental organizations, including IATP, which were opposed to genetically modified foods. Wiehoff says that after contacting the other groups targeted by BBI, he approached James Ridgeway of Mother Jones. Ridgeway broke the story in April 2008.
But he wasn’t the first reporter on the case. Bill Koch, brother to the bête noire duo and another target of BBI, sent two retired FBI agents who contacted John Wilke of the Wall Street Journal after learning of the scandal in 2007. Correspondence between Hopkins and Wilke reveals his interest in BBI as early as April, a full year before Ridgeway got the scoop.
The Wall Street Journal had a noble history of uncovering skeletons in corporate America’s closet. But over the course of Wilke’s first year of investigation, the Journal was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — an outfit not known for its antagonism to business interests.
“Wilke told us it was the biggest corporate scandal in US history,” Dodd said. “He said it was going to make the front page.”
Nothing came of it. James Ridgeway filed his first in a series of reports for Mother Jones, focusing on the espionage against environmental activists. The Washington Post, Der Spiegel and CNBC all followed with their own short features.
Wilke tragically passed away from pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2009, over two years after he began investigating BBI. Emails between Wilke and Dodd’s team indicate he had finished the story well before his death.
As the WSJ story evaporated, overtures by Dodd to The Baltimore Sun concerning Ed Hale were seemingly snubbed. They only compounded Dodd’s belief in a far-reaching conspiracy to keep BBI’s clientele out of the limelight. But after interviews with the former Baltimore Sun writers and editors at WSJ, as well as sources with whom Wilke was working, a more complex picture surfaces.
Wilke’s emails show a diligent muckraker trying to find a news peg for his story while receiving pushback from his editors. Though the account had been largely completed by February 2008, and, Wilke allegedly claimed, was set to break in March, it curiously hit the back burner. The financial crash of that summer then began to take up most of the Journal’s ink and Wilke’s pleas, he claimed, fell on deaf ears. As the original story decayed, rewrites and efforts to find news pegs caused even further delay — all the way until Wilke’s death on May 1.
Wilke’s senior editor at the time says he doesn’t recall the story. His immediate editor didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Kert Davies, a researcher with Greenpeace and one of Wilke’s sources, claims that Wilke’s style of reporting may explain why no colleagues were able to pick up where he left off. “[Wilke] really didn’t keep a lot of notes,” said Davies, who spoke with numerous coworkers of Wilke following his death. “He was kind of cagey with most people, even his colleagues. He didn’t chatter a lot about stories in progress.”
Messages left with the Wall Street Journal’s public relations department seeking comment were not returned.
No fewer than three reporters and one columnist for The Baltimore Sun were contacted by Dodd or his team between 2009 and 2013. The paper never published a single article on BBI despite the fact that it was a Maryland-based firm and one of Baltimore’s most prominent business executives, Ed Hale, was implicated in the espionage.
I spoke with all of those writers. Several weeks after Dodd contacted the first journalist, The Sun’s business editor, to whom the story would have proceeded, died in a car crash. That month, the journalist left to take a job with the Dallas Morning News. The two other Sun reporters contend that they were beset by other business, juggling several stories on quick deadlines. The final writer, a columnist, claims he has no recollection of Dodd, even though Dodd recalls speaking to him at length.
But the first reporter also said that the Washington Post and Mother Jones reports had contained the full story. He said the Sun would have just been regurgitating their stories. Ed Hale isn’t mentioned once in any of the Mother Jones reports or in the Washington Post.
In total, The Sun received 10 separate faxes from Dodd containing 214 pages of documents related to the case.
In a statement, a representative of The Baltimore Sun said, “without knowing the facts, we cannot respond to your inquiry.”
“Now I’m living basically in a bedroom with some friends…”
Small-town existence has never irked John Dodd. Born and raised in Easton, it’s likely to become his resting place. But the classically senescent life eludes the 67-year old man. While most of his peers take pleasure in watching their families blossom, his situation is unencumbered by the joys and responsibilities of being a father or husband. It’s an ironically positive feature. Those with kin are far easier to threaten.
It‘s not certain what will come of Dodd’s story or his exact place within it. The man cuts a figure too ingenuous for a mastermind and too fallible for a martyr. Did he know about the espionage during his tenure at BBI? Was his belated indignation the result of shock at BBI’s criminal conduct against targets, or just at his own experience being swindled? Why didn’t he go to the press right after his lawsuit failed?
What emerges is a portrait of a simple and trusting man navigating the duplicitous world of lawyers, spies and corporate misconduct. One who, if he wasn’t aware of BBI’s criminal racket, acted negligently to keep such knowledge at bay so long as business went with little strife. One who took refuge in the conviction that his underlings were looking out for his best interests by virtue of their former employment with the state. All too human, in other words.
Dodd’s ultimate exposure has left much good in its wake. Several lawsuits against BBI’s contracting firms ended in settlements for the victims. The Lake Charles activists may yet bring in a bounty that can be used to start healing a community devastated by the oil and gas industry.
At the same time, total justice seems a far cry. Other lawsuits have foundered.
On August 21 of this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a complaint filed by the environmental organization Greenpeace against former BBI management, Dow Chemical, Sasol North America and the public relations firms Dezenhall Resources and Ketchum Inc.
The suit, based on Dodd’s documents, charged that BBI broke into Greenpeace’s Washington, D.C. office, stole thousands of documents and conducted unlawful surveillance of its employees. It was dismissed on the technicality that the dumpsters from which much of the material was stolen were not strictly Greenpeace property.
Charlie Cray, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, a think tank that published a 2013 report on corporate espionage in which BBI occupies its own chapter, worries about the precedent the decision may set.
“It’s fair game now: open season on anybody now including businesses,” he said. “If your materials are not carefully protected in your office, but they are downstairs or somewhere else, who’s to prevent your competitors from legally stealing them?”
The story of BBI is about more than just dirty tricks commissioned from corporate boardrooms. It’s an account of the people within the corporate structures that dominate modern life.
It’s a tale of morality sacrificed at the altar of quarterly profit and market share: golden calves that loom larger in today’s world than even their congregants’ logos. It lays bare a Randian ecosystem of competing and selfish interests that converge at points and depart elsewhere, leading to fortune for some and victimhood for others.
James Johnson didn’t need to take orders from Ed Hale to sabotage Dodd’s case, nor did John Wilke’s editors require Rupert Murdoch’s instructions to keep the story from garnering more prominent coverage. To ruin Dodd’s life, happenstance was sufficient.
“I had my home for 35 and a half years and was evicted from that home back in January,” he grieves. “Now I’m living basically in a bedroom with some friends for the time being.”
It’s a tragic fate, one that he can only make sense of by connecting dots. But no matter how much Dodd wants to believe it, there was no man behind the curtain.
Yet hope dies a slow death, it seems. What can more public exposure possibly accomplish?
“Same thing I’ve been hoping all along: to get the truth out about this whole scandal and to get justice for the victims,” he said. “And there are many, many victims of Beckett Brown out there.”