Ex-Penn Schoen & Berland VP alleges 'eavesdropping'

NEW YORK: Mitchell Markel, an ex-VP of the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB), on June 29 filed suit against his former employer for allegedly "eavesdropping" on e-mails sent to his personal Blackberry.

NEW YORK: Mitchell Markel, an ex-VP of the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB), on June 29 filed suit against his former employer for allegedly "eavesdropping" on e-mails sent to his personal Blackberry.

The civil suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan and originally reported by the Associated Press, claims PSB violated federal wiretapping laws by reading Markel's e-mail nearly a month after he quit the firm to become president of a new firm called Global Insights & Strategies.

Markel gave written notice of his resignation on April 5.

Randi May, an associate with Markel's law firm, Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney, said PSB began accessing Markel's e-mails about a month after he left PSB and despite his having set up a personal account with Cingular. The suit claims PSB was accessing not only messages sent to and from Markel through his PSB address, but also his Yahoo and new company e-mail addresses, and that the firm changed settings on his Blackberry to send a blind copy of all his messages to a phony Gmail account PSB created in Markel's name.

A spokesperson for Mark Penn, the co-founder of PSB and current head of Burson-Marsteller, of which PSB is a sister firm, called the allegation a meritless countersuit against a complaint PSB filed on June 13 that Markel, ex-PSB co-founder Michael J. Berland, and former PSB employees Julie Bissell and Jennifer Negrin had solicited business from PSB clients, including RIM, the National Hockey League, and Estee Lauder, despite non-solicitation agreements.

PSB denies hacking into any accounts and claims that it was perfectly entitled to monitor all of Markel's messages because the account was set up and managed by PSB, and that it monitored certain e-mails because they showed that Markel had been actively soliciting PSB clients for the new firm both before and after he left PSB. The spokesperson said the firm created the Gmail account to collect messages in a location outside the PSB servers in case any of the messages contained viruses.

"This countersuit is preposterous; it's like a burglar tripping on a set of golf clubs on the way out of a house and then suing the homeowner for his injuries," said the spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A temporary restraining order was issued on June 20 barring the former PSB employees from "servicing or soliciting any client of PSB." May declined to comment on whether Markel had solicited PSB clients, except to say that she was confident he would prevail in both suits. She called the monitoring of Markel's e-mails messages, including personal communications with his family, a serious violation of his privacy.

"What they're basically saying is, because they had the key to his house, they were allowed to break in and put bugs all over it," May said. "Because you might know somebody's password that gives you the technical capacity to hack into somebody's account, it doesn't make it lawful to do it."

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