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Raid on Florida reporter’s home tied to Fox leaks

The journalist, Timothy Burke, is under investigation for allegedly participating in a criminal conspiracy to access a Fox News computer system without authorization.

The journalist, Timothy Burke, is under investigation for allegedly participating in a criminal conspiracy to access a Fox News computer system without authorization.

Former Deadspin editor Timothy Burke (inset picture) from an undated social media image. (Graphic by The Desk)
Former Deadspin editor Timothy Burke (inset picture) from an undated social media image. (Graphic by The Desk)

A Florida journalist whose home was raided by FBI agents earlier this month is under criminal investigation for conspiring to access the internal computer system of a cable news network without authorization, The Desk has learned.

The investigation against former Deadspin video editor Timothy Burke is being led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in partnership with a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Florida, and is exploring whether Burke conspired with one or more people to access computers at the Fox News Channel without authorization on more than one occasion and over the course of several years.

The probe intensified in recent weeks after the website Media Matters for America published video clips of former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson in candid, off-the-air moments. Investigators believe Burke worked with others to illegally obtain the clips, and later passed them on to Media Matters after Fox News dismissed Carlson in April.

Federal law enforcement officials have not publicly commented on the matter, but a source familiar with the investigation confirmed to The Desk on Friday that the raid on Burke’s home earlier in the month was linked to that probe. The connection between Burke and the Fox News clips was first made public early Friday morning by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, citing a letter sent by an Assistant U.S. Attorney to Fox News in the initial stages of the probe.

Reached by e-mail on Friday, a spokesperson at Fox News said they did not have a copy of the letter mentioned by the times. The spokesperson declined to comment further. A separate source at Fox News confirmed to The Desk that the company is working with federal investigators to determine if someone accessed their internal network in a criminal matter. The person asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The Desk later obtained a copy of the letter that was sent by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the legal team at Fox Corporation team early Thursday morning. The letter, addressed to a specific lawyer at Fox, said prosecutors were “investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing involving intentional unauthorized access of a computer…intentional interception and disclosure of wire, oral or electronic communication….conspiracy…and other federal statues.”

“The United States presently views Fox Corporation as one of the potential victim-witnesses of the alleged criminal conduct under investigation,” the letter said. “Relatedly, the United States believes Fox is in possession of information, records, and documents…which is material to the ongoing investigation, and which may assist the United States in reaching a proper resolution of its investigation.”

The letter specifically cites a statute known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), an obscure federal law that was initially intended to protect government computer systems but has been broadened over the years to target individuals who, among other things, access public websites without explicit permission of their owner.

The law criminalizes both the unauthorized access to a computer system — commonly referred to as “hacking” — as well as exceeding authorized access to a computer system. A person can be accused of exceeding their authorized access if they have permission to access some computer files, but then use that authority to distribute files in a way that the owner of the system didn’t intend.

Federal agents cited both provisions of the CFAA in examining whether Burke illegally obtained, and then distributed, clips from an internal Fox News digital video library, a law enforcement source told The Desk on Friday. The source said they weren’t sure if Burke is being accused of accessing Fox News systems on his own, or if he allegedly worked with someone at the channel to obtain and leak the material, but affirmed “other individuals” were also being investigated over the matter.

The letter obtained by The Desk said prosecutors “not, directly or indirectly, making any suggestions or allegations of wrongdoing against the ultimate publisher of the items.” Separately, a source confirmed Media Matters is not a target of the criminal investigation. Burke has not been formally accused of criminal wrongdoing, and he has declined to comment publicly on the advice of his attorney.

“Instead, the criminal conduct under investigation concerns the initial unauthorized computer intrusions and interceptions of electronic communications by other subjects — who were/are neither employees of nor affiliated with Fox — to secure those items,” the letter said.

For years, Burke edited videos for a number of well-known media brands, including the Daily Beast, Abrams Media, Gawker and Deadspin. Several years ago, he launched his own communications firm, which he operates out of his home. A website connected to his business has been offline since the day of the raid.

The search warrant that gave agents authority to search Burke’s home remains sealed by a federal court, and will likely not be made public unless charges are brought. Burke’s wife, Tampa City Council Member Lynn Hurtak, has said publicly that the search related to her husband’s work as a journalist.

Disclosure: The author of this story was involved in a legal case concerning several provisions of the CFAA from 2013 to 2016.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).