Got a second for a Stop the Plant war story? It will help explain why Patrick Ryan absolutely must not be your choice in Tuesday’s crowded Democratic primary, which will determine who runs against John Faso for Congress next November.
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During the nearly seven-year fight to stop the massive, coal-burning St. Lawrence Cement proposal in Columbia County, I was spied on clumsily by a private investigative firm from the Albany area. This surveillance activity came to light after several ham-handed attempts to dig dirt about me from my neighbors and family.
My neighbor Joanne Krasowsky (R.I.P.) was the first to report that a peculiar man was prowling lower Warren Street, asking odd questions about me.
A man in a minivan approached Joanne near the corner of 1st and Warren. He claimed that he was from a finance company, and that her neighbor Sam Pratt had applied to them for a loan. The man said that they were planning to approve the loan, but needed to verify some personal information first. Would she be able to answer some questions to help her neighbor out?
Joanne immediately smelled a rat. After all, what kind of lending institution sends out reps to verify loan info via their neighbors? She asked the man for identification to verify that he was who he said he was. The gumshoe stuttered that he forgot his wallet at the office, and quickly excused himself—getting into his car, ostensibly without his driver’s license.
Of course, I had applied for no such loan.
Next up was my family. A man called my parents’ house and tried to quiz my mother about my finances, using the same flimsy pretext.
Then there was my tenant and friend, Jackie Thomas, a DJ and local shopowner who lived in the garden apartment of my house on Warren Street. Jackie was approached again on the same pretext, but cannily told the man that yes, he would be glad to help... However, Jackie said, he was in a rush to get to work, so could he call him later? The man provided a phone number, which Jackie immediately passed along to me.
It did not take long to trace the phone number to the Albany-area private investigation firm. (Note: Though it had an office in Greenport, the Greenport Project’s law firm and State corporate HQ were both in Albany.)
I called the firm and asked to speak to its president. I told the man that I was well aware that they were falsely representing themselves as a lender to surveill and harass me. If it did not stop immediately, I said, they would find themselves in court—along with their client St. Lawrence Cement for violating laws against suppressing public participation in regulatory processes. The firm’s president denied it all, of course. But there were no further incidents.
Joanne wrote up the incident in a very funny letter to the editor of the Register-Star, and the entire episode reflected poorly on our adversary, SLC. As son often happens with overweening corporate tactics like this, they come back to bite the corporation.
Overall, my sense was that the attempted surveillance was so amateurishly done that either SLC, in its usual inept way, had hired a really lame firm; or, the goal was less to gather information than to make their presence known, and thereby intimidate me. If I did have something to hide, they might not find it. But I would hear they were looking, and if I had something to worry about, the threat alone might be enough to get me to back off the fight, or even move away entirely to escape exposure. Unfortunately for the company and its parent Holcim, I neither had any juicy secrets, nor neighbors who wanted to play ball with creepy corporate spies.
Several years later, I also discovered that someone around this same time had filed a request for a criminal background check on me, which was itemized in the records the County Clerk’s office. However, that office claimed that they could not find the original records to see who was responsible.
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Corporate surveillance and harassment of activists, watchdogs and whistleblowers is is all too common. It’s only made easier in the Internet Age, with so much more info being available (both legally and illegally) online. Such harassment may be most familiar to the public from films such as Erin Brockovich, The Insider, or Michael Clayton, which dramatize the way big business uses espionage and gaslighting activity to deal with pesky citizen nuisances.
If it turns out that the journalists, or activist, or union organizer, or whistleblower has a drug problem, or is cheating on their spouse, or watches extreme porn, or has gambling debts, or some other skeleton in their closet, then that info can be used to try to silence them.
And here’s where we circle back to NY-19 Democratic Congressional candidate Pat Ryan.
Back in 2011, I followed closely a developing scandal involving three “data mining” firms: Palantir, HBGary, and Berico. The trio had banded together to seek lucrative contracts from corporations bedeviled by public relations problems. Their potential clients included the huge U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a notoriously anti-labor lobby, and Bank of America, also no friend of working people, notorious for fraudulent, predatory and discriminatory lending practices.
The three-company scheme came to light after hackers obtained a vast trove of HBGary emails, with many communications and memoranda including Berico. The exploit was motivated by public boasts by HBGary that they were turning the tables on hackers by using similar tools to infiltrate them.
At the time, Patrick Ryan was the Deputy Director for analysis at one of these three firms. As investigative reporter Lee Fang wrote at The Intercept,
Seven years ago, Ryan, then working at a firm called Berico Technologies, compiled a plan to create a real-time surveillance operation of left-wing groups and labor unions, hoping business lobbyists would pay top dollar to monitor and disrupt the actions of activist groups across the country. At one point, the proposal included the idea to spy on the families of high-profile Democratic activists and plant fake documents with labor unions in a bid to discredit them.
The pitch, a joint venture with a now-defunct company called HBGary Federal and the Peter Thiel-backed company Palantir Technologies, however, crumbled in 2011 after it was exposed in a series of news reports.
Fang is not some far-out kook, or a right-winger out to discredit a Democratic candidate who has raised a lot of money for this race. Rather, Fang is best known for his research on the Koch brothers’ influence on GOP politics. He’s a former employee of prominent Democrats in Congress, and a writer for The Nation and many other well-known liberal- or left-leaning publications. Most recently, he published an op-ed in The New York Times about Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Of Ryan, he and others also reported:
The emails show Ryan at every step of the process to pitch the chamber. He was on the initial email thread on October 19, 2010, discussing the idea. Ryan, responding to a unique opportunity to sell “a complete intelligence solution” using “social media exploitation,” said it “sounded like a great opportunity.”
Later that month, after a meeting with the chamber’s attorney, Ryan announced to his business partners that a “client of theirs is targeted by another entity, specifically a labor union, that is trying to extract some kind of concession or favorable outcome.”
Ryan’s Congressional candidacy brought this mostly-forgotten scandal back to light. A ton of documentation dating back to 2011-12 was archived online, no doubt to the candidate’s chagrin. A 2011 day-by-day timeline of events published by ThinkProgress mentions Ryan by name over 20 times, demonstrating that he was hardly at the fringes of this scheme. (The players eventually branded their triumvirate “Team Themis.”) For example, on November 5th, 2010,
Ryan asks [Chamber lawyer] Woods what data [it] has, wondering if it includes “Financial Records, Union Rosters, IP addresses” and “access to the union in question’s membership lists”. Ryan attaches a $200,000 cost proposal.
The $200K figure was just for Phase I of the campaign. Phase II was to cost $2,000,000. On November 18th of the same timeline, when the partners have a debate about how to divvy up the spoils from this caper, they settle on a 40/30/30 split—and “Ryan agrees on behalf of Berico.” The proposal includes, among many other tasks, developing a “target list” for whom they will “develop in-depth target dossiers for key entities and groups,” including “key biographic data, relationships, intentions.”
Ryan’s evasive responses have attempted to neutralize and deflect a sordid part of his resumé he had neglected to disclose to voters. And his various excuses only raise further questions about the candidate’s integrity. In his initial reply to The Intercept—whose editor, Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winner Glenn Greenwald, was someone this team also discussed targeting with a campaign to discredit him—Ryan’s third-person press release stated:
Pat worked at a small software firm and was assigned to develop a proposal, but had concerns about the nature of the work, especially in relation to the protection of American citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. The project did not move past the proposal stage.
This statement employs a number of shady public relations tricks to attempt to minimize and deflect the issue.
first, there is his spurious reference to Berico as “a small software firm.” Leaving aside how small or large Berico was at the time, this seeks to trivialize Ryan’s time there. It was just some small firm, no big deal... But what difference does it make how big the company was? It’s the noxious nature of their activity which is under scrutiny, not their market cap... And if it truly was a small firm, that would only mean that Ryan had to be that much more involved with what happened.
Next, Ryan claims that he “had concerns” about what he and his company was doing. In other interviews and appearances, he has added the claim that the leaked email trove did not include any of his internal protests about those concerns. How convenient: Somehow, among the tens of thousands of documents published online, none have come to light in which Ryan objects. But many—like the one at the top of this post, in which Ryan states to his colleagues how “excited” he is to be “part of” this project. If such emails exist, why has Ryan not released them himself to clear his name?
Thirdly, and most dishonestly, Ryan uses the deflection that “the project did not move past the proposal stage” to again minimize its importance.
But why did it not move forward?
Because Berico and its partners got caught with their pants down.
Once their scheme to surveill and intimidate people deemed irritating by big business was exposed, it was inoperable. Per my account above, it’s a lot harder to spy on people when they know you’re doing it. And the scandal was a p.r. disaster for all three firms (one of which folded as a result), whose only remaining move was to beat a retreat.
Ryan has also tried to suggest that he was just along for the ride as someone who was incidentally a low-level employee. But he is listed on key memoranda and proposals as the key point-person for such projects, for example in the cover sheet above (highlight added). The full memo can be downloaded here. Ryan can also be seen in other messages acting as a principal actor among the partners, for example in trying to figure out how much they can charge the Chamber without losing the contract.
Ryan in his various responses is deploying what is known in corporate rhetoric as “weasel words.” These are phrases which appear to be benign and narrowly factual themselves, but are intended to mask, evade, twist, or otherwise dodge the truth. Sure, Berico was not as big as General Motors. Sure, the project technically didn’t “move forward.” Sure, he was not the CEO. But none of those things disclose the full scope of Berico’s involvement, or Ryan’s role.
Ryan compounds the sin with this approach. Rather than acknowledging that he made a grave error of judgement, one which he could have learned from and vowed not to repeat, he instead telegraphs an ugly message: That he (or his handlers) seem to think that the voting public is either too inattentive or too gullible to look into and understand what occurred. It suggests a dismissive and cynical attitude to one’s potential constituents.
One might shrug this off as an isolated incident. Say, a youthful mistake seven years ago... But after leaving Berico, Ryan moved onto another firm, Dataminr, which sought much the same type of work and was “funded through an investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA.” As Fang reported,
The firm amassed law enforcement clients, including the FBI and Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center used by the government to alert multiple law enforcement departments in the Los Angeles region of potential threats. Documents, uncovered by the ACLU of California through a public records investigation of social media monitoring software, show that Dataminr monitored tweets mentioning Black Lives Matter on behalf of the JRIC. The emails show that Dataminr’s alerts vacuumed up tweets from now-Intercept columnist Shaun King, among other activists, in reports sent to law enforcement.
In another email obtained by the ACLU of California, Dataminr pitched the Los Angeles Police Department to use its tool to track protests, among other events of interest to law enforcement. Dataminr’s social media tracking tools are “highly valued by our clients at FBI CTD, NYPD, DoD and all ‘big five’ intel agencies,” the pitch continued.
In other words, Ryan’s interest in spying on fellow Americans to assist corporate and government clients cannot be shrugged off as a one-time thing.
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There are seven Democratic candidates in Tuesday’s primary. Three of them—Ryan, Delgado and Flynn—have the blessing of the out-of-touch, center-right, neoliberal DCCC, the same gang of insider Dems who along with the DNC helped deliver the November 2016 election debacle. These establishment interests expect candidates to shut up about popular progressive policies, aiming to protect their big donors against the interests of rank-and-file liberal voters.
My vote will go to one of the other four, most likely Gareth Rhodes. Rhodes unlike most of his competitors does not appear to have any obvious knock against him that Faso can exploit. He has also shown unusual commitment to the district through grassroots campaigning, managing to visit every single town and city in the sprawling district at least once, sometimes more.
Rhodes is very responsive to dialogue, answering calls and emails from all comers at an astonishingly quick pace. His relative youth to me is not a disadvantage: It could help bring in younger voters, and means he is less wedded to the status quo. I might add that when we started fighting SLC, I had just turned from 29 to 30—and faced resistance from grayer opponents who though that was “too young” to spearhead such a battle. Fortunately, I had a lot of help and allies, and we prevailed, in spite of corporate money and dirty tricks.
But whoever you wind up choosing from this smorgasbord of options, in my view Ryan should be off the menu.