Corporate Espionage Detailed in Documents
Sunday, June 22, 2008
They scavenged through trash and tailed people for hours. They used undercover operatives to infiltrate private meetings. The targets were not agents of foreign powers but advocacy groups that had been critical of corporations.
In the 1990s, a Maryland-based private detective agency composed of former CIA agents and law enforcement officers spied on such activist groups as Greenpeace, the firm's records show.
The agency, Beckett Brown International, had an operative at meetings of a group in Rockville that accused a nursing home of substandard care. In Louisiana, it kept tabs on environmental activists after a chemical spill. In Washington, it spied on food safety activists who had found taco shells made with genetically modified corn not approved for human consumption.
BBI, which was founded in 1995, disbanded in 2000, and the activists might never have learned they were spied on. But a disgruntled BBI investor began digging through company records two years ago and has been contacting the former targets. He also gave The Washington Post access to the records, which provide an unusually detailed look into the secretive world of corporate spying.
"These people were victims," investor John C. Dodd III said. "They were trying to make things better or just do their jobs, and these guys were spying on them."
Although the targets were surprised when Dodd called, many said they had suspected they were being watched. Elder-care activists in Rockville had long wondered how Hebrew Home nursing facility officials seemed to predict their every move, former activist Ilene Henshaw said.
"They were absolutely one step ahead of us," she said. "I never knew why."
Not all of BBI's work targeted activists: Lysol wanted details of a New Jersey high school student's science fair project about cleaning products. Mary Kay executives sought a secret "psychological assessment" of a fellow executive. A consultant working for Nestlé wanted information about rivals Mars and Whetstone Candy.
"I always thought they were trying to sabotage me," said Henry M. Whetstone Jr., who recently reviewed the BBI records. "Everyone thinks that the candy industry is this happy world. It's not. It has a really dark side."
BBI was renamed in 1999, and it dissolved the next year. Dodd, who said he invested $700,000 in BBI, sued his former partners for breach of contract. He lost, but he kept more than 100 boxes of records from the firm's office in Severna Park.
Former targets have paid Dodd or a lawyer working with him, in some cases as much as several thousand dollars, for access to and assistance with the material, he said. At least one plans to sue.
In an interview, BBI founding partner Richard M. Beckett said his work focused on executive recruitment, a service for which The Washington Post Co. paid the firm $27,000 in 1998. Beckett said he knew little about the investigative work and left in 1999.