Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Dow Chemical Co. and Sasol North America Inc. were sued for espionage by a unit of Greenpeace International, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group, which alleges the chemical companies illegally searched its trash, hacked into its computers, and tapped its phones.
From 1998 to 2000, Dow, Sasol and two public relations firms conspired to infiltrate and steal confidential information in order to thwart Greenpeace Inc.’s environmental campaigns, according to a complaint filed today in federal court in Washington. Greenpeace said the spying included breaking into locked trash bins outside its Washington headquarters and infiltrating meetings and electronic communications.
“These unacceptable and underhanded tactics interfered with valuable work we were undertaking to protect public health and expose environmental crimes,” Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford said in a statement.
Greenpeace, during the time the group claims the companies were spying upon it, was criticizing Dow for using chlorine in its manufacturing process. Greenpeace also was examining Dow’s sales of products containing genetically modified organisms, according to the complaint.
Greenpeace also was working with communities it says were threatened by chemical pollutants, including Lake Charles, Louisiana, according to its press statement announcing today’s court filing. Sasol maintains a manufacturing facility at Lake Charles, according to that company’s website.
The 57-page complaint contains nine counts, including civil racketeering, trespassing, and invasion of privacy claims. Greenpeace is seeking compensatory, consequential and treble damages, stating the amount would be determined at trial.
“We have not been served with this suit and, therefore, we are not in a position to immediately comment about the alleged activities of over a decade ago,” Gregory Baldwin, a spokesman for Midland, Michigan-based Dow, said in an e-mail. “Once we have been served we will provide an appropriate response.”
Ann McWatters, in-house legal counsel for Houston-based Sasol North America Inc., didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment. Sasol North America is a unit of Johannesburg-based Sasol Ltd., according to the company’s website.
Ketchum, Dezenhall Firms
Also named as defendants were Ketchum Inc., a public relations firm based in New York; Dezenhall Resources Ltd., a Washington-based public relations firm; and four former employees from Beckett Brown International Inc., a private security firm.
Robyn Massey, a spokeswoman for Ketchum, said she could not comment on any specifics because the firm had yet to formally receive the papers. “We will review it thoroughly and address it in the appropriate venue,” Massey said in an e-mail. “As a company that views integrity as fundamental to our values, we take this matter seriously.”
Dezenhall didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment on the Greenpeace allegations. The complaint says that Ketchum worked with Dow in its effort to target Greenpeace while Dezenhall worked with Sasol.
The spying allegations in the complaint were first reported by Mother Jones magazine in 2008, which said it obtained information and internal documents from a former investor of Beckett Brown. The company, which changed its name to S2i Corp. in 2000, couldn’t be located for comment.
George Ferris of Severna Park, Maryland, was one of the former Becket Brown employees who allegedly carried out the Greenpeace espionage, according to the group’s complaint.
‘We Never Did’
Ferris confirmed in a telephone interview today that he did work for the security firm. He denied the allegations contained in the complaint. “We never did any work for or against Greenpeace,’” he said.
The suit alleges that “in or about” 1998, Dow and Sasol, then known as CONDEA Vista, hired Beckett Brown to spy on Greenpeace and report on the group’s financial support, internal operations, plans, and activities. The complaint says Sasol and Dezenhall paid Beckett Brown more than $200,000. The suit says Ketchum, working on behalf of Dow, paid Beckett Brown more than $125,000.
Greenpeace claims Beckett Brown relied on subcontractors including off-duty police officers from Baltimore and Washington to gain access to internal Greenpeace documents. According to the complaint, the documents included campaign planning data, donor letters, legal papers, financial reports, and credit card account numbers. The complaint also alleges the defendants stole Social Security numbers and personal bank account statements from its employees.
“Many of the documents that defendants unlawfully obtained from Greenpeace contain confidential strategy information regarding environmental campaigns against toxic chemicals, global warming, nuclear energy, genetic engineering and the pollution of fisheries and oceans,” the complaint states. “Such campaigns directly and indirectly concern the financial interests of Dow, Sasol, Ketchum and Dezenhall.”
The case is Greenpeace Inc. v. The Dow Chemical Company, 10-cv-02037, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at firstname.lastname@example.org.