FBI agent testifies in Louisville child porn case that agency paid Geek Squad workers for years
The agent, Tracey Riley, testified in a Jefferson Circuit Court criminal case in October that the technicians were not government informants.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – An FBI agent acknowledged in a court hearing in Louisville last fall that over a number of years, the agency paid Geek Squad employees at Best Buy’s Bullitt County, Kentucky facility who contacted them when they found child pornography on a computer.
Agent Tracey Riley testified in a Jefferson Circuit Court criminal case on October 5 that “in the past,” she and other members of the bureau have “on occasion” paid at least four Geek Squad employees -- which defense attorneys argue make them, in effect, confidential informants working for the government.
However, Riley testified that the employees were not paid for their help in “any particular” criminal cases, but “were just given money because we could… saying thanks.”
“They’re not really informants,” she told defense attorney Thomas Clay. “I don’t know what you would call them.”
The testimony came during a suppression hearing in the case of Louisville resident Roger Hogg, who was charged with several felony counts of possession of child pornography after a Geek Squad employee contacted Riley on April 27, 2015, reporting that he had found the material after Hogg took his computer in for repair.
The existence of the testimony, which hasn't been previously reported, further amplifies the relationship between the FBI and Geek Squad. Earlier this week, Gizmodo published documents released by the online privacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation that showed that federal authorities have maintained "a close liaison" with Geek Squad management, including at one point hosting a meeting with the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Working Group at its Kentucky repair facility.
"These documents that were just released prove that the FBI has had an ongoing relationship with the Geek Squad," Clay said in an interview.
Clay has argued the evidence against Hogg should be thrown out because his constitutional rights to privacy and protection from unreasonable searches were violated when his computer was searched by a Geek Squad employee, acting as a government agent, without a warrant.
“The source at Best Buy searched” the computer for “the benefit of law enforcement, not the benefit of the customer,” Clay argued in a motion to the court.
Prosecutors, however, said a Geek Squad employee contacted the FBI after finding child pornography on Hogg’s computer and there was no payment involved. Any past payments by the FBI to Geek Squad employees are irrelevant to this case, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Danielle Yannelli argued.
The judge has not yet made a ruling.
In her testimony, Riley said Best Buy employees were referred to as “confidential human sources,” but that they were not “typical” confidential informants.
Asked by Clay what the difference was, Riley said that was a “good question,” and “that’s why they don’t exist anymore.”
“What were they being paid for, ma’am?” Clay asked, according to a video of the hearing.
“Nothing in specific,” she testified.
Riley said there was no agreement with Best Buy about payment and not every employee was paid. When Riley became a child pornography investigator, she was told at times “to go ahead and give them (Geek Squad employees) some money, so, ok, I did.”
Riley said the Geek Squad employees would call the FBI, on their own, to report finding evidence of child porn on a computer.
“They weren’t told they were going to be paid,” she testified.
“So the FBI just gave these four people $500 for nothing?” Clay asked.
“That’s right,” Riley responded. “There’s never been collaboration.”
It is unclear what happened with cases in which Best Buy employees were paid.
In one case, Riley said she paid an employee $500 “because I could. Literally, we have some extra money.”
That payment is now part of the evidence in the case of a doctor in California who challenged the bureau’s ties to the Best Buy Geek Squad in Kentucky after he was charged with possession of child pornography.
Documents in that case showed the computer repair facility in Kentucky had a relationship with the FBI for at least 10 years.
The documents also confirm that the FBI has paid Geek Squad employees as informants, according to a Washington Post article.
Riley said the FBI shut down the payments as the result of the California case, which began in 2011.
Best Buy employees have called the FBI since the facility was opened when they find child porn, Riley testified. The agent checks the computer and seizes it if there are illegal images on the device.
“They still call us,” she said on the stand. “We still go down there.”
“They aren’t looking for child pornography,” she testified. “They stumble across it.”
But Clay says the discovery made on Hogg's computer had to be searched for by the Geek Squad employee.
"Unless the government can prove that these images were not on unallocated space, its our position that nobody, no defendant and no other citizen viewed these images if they're on unallocated space," Clay said.
Best Buy issued the following statement last year:
“Best Buy and Geek Squad have no relationship with the FBI. From time to time, our repair agents discover material that may be child pornography and we have a legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement. We are proud of our policy and share it with our customers before we begin any repair.
Any circumstance in which an employee received payment from the FBI is the result of extremely poor individual judgment, is not something we tolerate and is certainly not a part of our normal business behavior.
To be clear, our agents unintentionally find child pornography as they try to make the repairs the customer is paying for. They are not looking for it. Our policies prohibit agents from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem so that we can maintain their privacy and keep up with the volume of repairs.”
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