WASHINGTON -- When Jonathan Zuck joined a trade association to fight the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, he never thought he'd be battling corporate espionage instead.
A private investigator appears to have spent thousands of dollars attempting to obtain documents that could be damaging to Microsoft and its free-market allies including Zuck, who became president of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) two years ago.
In addition, someone pried open the doors and entered the rooms of Microsoft's Dupont Circle offices earlier this week, according to Microsoft spokesman Rick Miller. Microsoft and ACT have each contacted the police, who are investigating the incidents.
During the last year, two other groups that sided with Microsoft have seen confidential documents obtained by computer companies and leaked to journalists for articles that were critical of the Redmond, Washington, software giant.
Both the Independent Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy told Wired News they suspect corporate espionage, if not outright breaking-and-entering.
On June 6, a woman identifying herself as Blanca Lopez offered janitors $700 cash for documents in ACT's trash, according to a report from P&R Cleaning Services Inc. to the building's owner, John Akridge Management Company, and obtained by Wired News.
Lopez offered money on two different evenings, and identified herself as a private investigator. The DC police department, which licenses PIs, said they've never heard of her. Misrepresenting yourself as a private investigator is a misdemeanor in DC. Lopez' attorney declined to comment.
A June 7 letter from Akridge Management Company to Alliance Business Centers, a tenant that sublets the office to ACT, states: "I was informed by Mr. Lou Delon, General Manager with P&R Cleaning that Ms. Lopez again offered the cleaner $500 and the cleaning supervisor $200 in cash last night."
Lopez gained access to the building using a cardkey from Robert M. Walters, a self-described consultant who had rented a room on the same floor of the building as ACT in May.
Lopez entered the building on June 2 and offered the cleaners $60 for ACT's trash, according to the cleaning company. Turned down the first time, she came back again on June 6 and upped her offer to $500 for the cleaners and $200 for the supervisor.
When renting the unit, Walters told Alliance he was representing a company called Upstream Technologies. Walters said Upstream's offices were at 320 Main St. in Laurel, Md., but the company at that address for the last decade is X-Act Telesolutions, which describes itself as a provider of "enhanced telephone support services." A receptionist there had never heard of Walters or Upstream.
The cleaners said Lopez handed them a business card that identifies her as a branch manager for travel agency Travel-On, which is located inside the United States Energy Association. USEA, with offices inside the Reagan Trade Center, is the U.S. representative to the World Energy Council. An Energy Association employee confirmed that Lopez works there.
The real private investigator turns out to be Walters, a former investigative journalist. "Robert M. Walters is licensed (as a PI) with the Investigative Group," said Detective Fern Francis of the DC Metropolitan Police Department.
A DC attorney, Martin Lobel, was hired by Upstream Technologies -- the company Walters claimed to represent -- to investigate what's going on.
"So far all I've been able to ascertain is that Microsoft flacks have been passing (accusations) around," said Lobel, an attorney at Lobel, Novins and Lamont.
"All I know is that I got retained to find out what happened," said Lobel, who has chaired the DC Bar Association's antitrust steering committee.
Lobel said he didn't know what Upstream Technologies was -- except that "the check cleared" -- but the address Walters provided does not appear to be a real one.
Microsoft said the illegal entry into its offices was part of a burglary of a "couple floors" of the building, with equipment stolen from other offices. But "we have not found anything missing," the spokesman said.
The Investigative Group International is a firm headed by Watergate icon Terry Lenzner that says it "conducts confidential fact-finding around the world for corporations, law firms, financial institutions, public agencies, and private individuals."
But nobody there was talking. "In response to your inquiries, I am writing to advise you that it is IGI's long-standing policy not to respond to media inquiries relating to client, personnel, or other business issues," said Edward Federico, director of IGI's Washington office, in an email to Wired News.
George Vradenburg, general counsel at Microsoft competitor AOL is on IGI's advisory board and said he is a longtime friend of Lenzner. But Vradenburg said he has never attended any meetings and flatly denied any involvement with the incident.
"I believe there's a lot of well-heeled players conducting a high-stakes political game in this town," said the 34-year-old Zuck of ACT. "There are certainly those who are willing to go to any length to win this."
Zuck says the timing is particularly suspicious: The two cash-for-trash offers happened as U.S. District Judge Thomas Jackson was weighing Microsoft's fate, and as the Senate Judiciary committee is preparing hearings on the topic.
"It's no secret that our competitors are involved in a coordinated PR, political, and legal advocacy campaign against Microsoft," MS spokesman Miller said. "This latest information is just more proof of the ends they're willing to go to in order to slander us."
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