The FBI has paid informants in every nook-and-cranny in American society. But who would have thought that one of the nation’s leading retailers, Best Buy, would have its Geek Squad technicians on the payroll of this country’s top law enforcement agency as paid informants.
This disturbing fact was revealed in a January 9, 2017 report in the Washington Post written by Tom Jackman. This sordid affair began November 2011, according to the Post, when a gynecological oncologist named Mark Rettenmaier took his desktop computer to a Best Buy store in Mission Viejo, California “because it wouldn’t boot up.” It seems that there was a problem with the computer’s hard drive that was so significant that the store’s technicians told Rettenmaier that it would have to be sent to the store’s Geek Squad’s “recovery services” in Kentucky.
Service Order Warns Customers
Rettenmaier agreed, even signing a “service order” that contained the warning “I am on notice that any product containing child pornography will be turned over to the authorities,” reported the Post.
The computer was shipped to Geek Squad City in Brooks, Kentucky, located just outside Louisville. Justin Meade is the supervising technician at the shop. The Post reported that Geek Squad technicians at the shop had close and confidential ties to the Louisville FBI office. In fact, the newspaper said, Meade and FBI Agent Jennifer Cardwell met in 2009 to discuss ideas about informant “collaboration” between the Geek Squad technicians and the FBI.
Supervising Tech was Partner with FBI
Rettenmaier’s defense attorney, James D. Riddet, told U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney, sitting in Orange County, California, that the Meade/FBI relationship was a “two-way thoroughfare of information” in which the FBI considered Meade “to be a partner in the ongoing effort of law enforcement to detect and prosecute child pornography violators …. Here it is very clear that Best Buy, and specifically the supervisor who reports its technician’s discovery of ‘inappropriate’ content on customers’ computers, are not only working together, but actually planning to conduct more such searches in the future.”
Dr. Rettenmaier has been charged in federal court and has hired a criminal defense attorney because the Geek Squad found what the Post described as a photo of “a nude prepubescent girl on a bed.” The doctor was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in California for possession of child pornography. Judge Carney is now giving Rettenmaier’s attorney an opportunity to develop the nature of the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Guard in Kentucky and the local FBI office in Louisville. If the Best Buy tech is considered an agent of the government, 4th Amendment protections may apply and would have triggered necessity of a search warrant.
Government prosecutors told Judge Carney, the Post reported, that when a computer technician repairing a device “stumbles across images of child pornography” without the government’s knowledge of the search, “the technician is clearly not performing the search with the intent of assisting law enforcement efforts.”
Geek Squad Supervisor Paid $500.00
But that was not the case with the Geek Squad and the FBI in Kentucky. The Post cited court records that showed at least one supervisor with the Geek Squad had received a $500 payment from the FBI. Clearly, there was some sort of professional and financial relationship between the Geek Squad and the FBI in this situation.
“This relationship is so cozy,” Riddet told Judge Carney, “and so extensive that it turns searches by Best Buy into government searches. If they’re going to set up that network between Best Buy supervisors and FBI agents, you run the risk that Best Buy is a branch of the FBI.”
Agents and Techs Maintained Close Contact
Judge Carney found that the evidence of the relationship was so close that Louisville agents were informing Best Buy techs when to expect an “influx” of child pornography. When one of Meade technicians discovered the image on Rettermaier’s computer, he informed an FBI agent in personal tone that “we have another one out of California we want you to take a look at, when can you swing by.”
The Government is taking the position that Rettenmaier waived any right to claim a Fourth Amendment violation when he signed the “service order” giving the Geek Squad unfettered access to his computer. Prosecutors argued that when the technician discovered the child porn image, he was simply trying to restore data that Rettenmaier asked to be restored.
Judge Carney was not persuaded by this argument—the judge noted that the Geek Squad technicians were “going beyond the regular search to deleted material to find evidence the FBI might want,” reported the Post.
Best Buy Techs Looking for Evidence of Crime
In other words, the Geek Squad techs were scouring through the computers they were hired by unsuspecting Best Buy customers to repair, hoping to find evidence of child pornography for which the FBI would financially reward them.
The Post cited this statement by Best Buy spokesman Jeff Shelman:
“Best Buy and Geek Squad have no relationship with the FBI. From time to time, our repair agents discover material that may be child pornography and we have a legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement. We are proud of our policy and share it with our customers before we begin any repair.”
Best Buys Seeks Cover
As for any remuneration given to the any of its technicians by law enforcement, Shelman said this would be “result of extremely poor judgment” by the tech and is not something tolerated by Best Buy nor is it “a part of our normal business behavior.”
Whether or not Best Buy Geek Squad technicians have an unprofessional and financial relationship with the FBI will be decided by Judge Carney. He has ordered a full hearing at which Rettenmaier’s attorney will be allowed to question Geek Squad technicians and FBI agents from the Louisville office to determine the exact nature of their highly suspect relationship.