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A New York Times reporter not only gave money to a child pornographer, but did business with him and even signed on to an illegal porn website as a member and administrator, documents unsealed yesterday in a federal criminal proceeding in Nashville reveal. He claims in one court document, he only "posed" as a pedophile.   […]

New York Times reporter was a member of an illegal underage porn site, claims he was only "posing as online predator"

by DEBBIE NATHAN

A New York Times reporter not only gave money to a child pornographer, but did business with him and even signed on to an illegal porn website as a member and administrator, documents unsealed yesterday in a federal criminal proceeding in Nashville reveal. He claims in one court document, he only "posed" as a pedophile.  

The reporter is Kurt Eichenwald, who quit the Times in October, 2006.  He already had a lot of explaining to do earlier this year about his conduct while working on the Justin Berry story when it was revealed in March that, without telling his editors, he gave $2,000 to Berry — an 18-year-old who’d spent five years making child porn of himself,  when Eichenwald first contacted him in 2005. By then, Berry was an adult recruiting minors to perform sexually on webcams. After discovering this, Eichenwald found Berry a lawyer, who took him to the Department of Justice and got him immunity from prosecution in exchange for turning state’s evidence against four mostly gay and young men. All were eventually charged and convicted of making and distributing porn depicting underage teen boys. After Eichenwald  wrote a blockbuster story about Berry for the Times, his  journalism techniques aroused controversy in press circles. Even so, no one knew about the $2,000 check, and most of the media feted him.

Press adulation evaporated in March of this year however, when revelations of the $2,000 check emerged at a criminal trial in Michigan for one of the four accused men. Testifying there, Eichenwald said he was not acting as a reporter when he gave Berry the money, but was trying to save him from sexual exploitation and later demanded the money back before he started doing a Times piece.

This summer, a court hearing in the Nashville case revealed that Eichenwald gave yet more money to Berry, again without telling his editors. CounterPunch was the first to report this, and days later, the Times picked up the story. The Times didn’t say what the money — $1,184 — bought, and Eichenwald demurred that he had no independent recollection of having spent it. Two days after the Times report, he resigned from the Conde Nast financial magazine Portfolio without explanation.

The Nashville court documents unsealed yesterday reveal the following:

• Using a fake name, Eichenwald spent $1,184 to buy digital photos from Berry. It is not clear whether they were pornographic, or if they were made when Berry was under age 18 or older. But PayPal allows purchasers to send memos with their money, and  Eichenwald sent Berry several messages discussing the quality of the pictures he bought. "I found a pretty good one but the lighting sucks… still worth 100." "There are just 20 in the file, and most of them are nothing (shots of beds and driveways, or you rolling a joint).” “I found 3 so far that I either didn’t already have and were good.” “100…we gotta talk about what the really good ones are." (The ellipses are in the court document.)  

• Eichenwald encouraged Berry in his business endeavors while Berry was making child porn. In one PayPal message from June 2005, cited in the Nashville documents, Eichenwald writes Berry that "I’ll be online today. Find me and lemme know what to do. And I have other proposals for you that would get you even more money."

• During this same period, Eichenwald sent Berry the $2,000 check. In the Michigan trial, he testified that he assumed when he sent it that Berry was broke. Documents just unsealed in Nashville reveal that hours after receiving the money, Berry videotaped a 14-year-old boy masturbating. A few days later, he uploaded the illegal tape to JustinsFriends.com, his gay porn website that had lain dormant for months. Soon JustinFriends.com was up and running again, with new content, including masturbatory images of the 14-year old.

•   Under the pseudonym "Roy Rogers," Eichenwald was signed on as a member of the revivified JustinsFriends.com. But he was no ordinary member: He had administrative privileges, meaning he could enter areas of the internet open only to site managers with an administrative password. He used this privilege to enter an area where one could monitor new subscriptions to the illegal porn site. He visited this area over 20 times in late June, 2005.

All this information has come out in Tennessee federal court because one of the four convicted men, Timothy Richards, is trying to convince a judge that Eichenwald and Berry engaged in a conspiracy to entrap him into Berry’s criminal activities with underage pornography. In extensive filings which Eichenwald and his lawyers tried for weeks to keep sealed, Richards’  allegations are vigorously contested. Rather than conspiring, Eichenwald says in one filing, he was just trying to learn more about Berry. After consultation with his wife, he adopted the tactic of "posing as an online predator." In 1999, National Public Radio freelancer Larry Matthews was successfully prosecuted by the Department of Justice after working on a story about child porn in which he impersonated a pedophile online by using a pseudonym and downloading illegal material.

In addition to two civil attorneys, Eichenwald recently retained a criminal defense lawyer. He is Stephen Ryan, whom Eichenwald often cited in financial stories when he worked for the New York Times. Ryan is also the defense attorney for Justin Berry.

Not only Eichenwald but also the Times has a lot more explaining to do. In March the paper’s public editor,  Byron Calame,  savaged Eichenwald over the $2,000 check, while giving Eichenwald’s editor, Larry Ingrassia, a pass. But now it seems more and more extraordinary that New York Times editors did not conclude that Eichenwald’s dealings with Berry had far transcended anything that could be regarded as appropriate for an objective reporter. Even so, the Times was happy to publish a hyped story which led to a hysterical circus of congressional hearings and fueled witch-hunting legislation against not just sex offenders, but even teen networking sites such as MySpace.

After the documents were unsealed this reporter contacted the New York Times asking whether they were previously aware of Eichenwald’s actions as now revealed in the court documents in Nashville. The Times was asked specifically about five points:

1. Eichenwald used the $1,184 PayPal payments he paid Justin Berry to buy photos from Justin. Was Eichenwald’s editor or anyone else at the Times aware that Eichenwald was engaged in business transactions with Justin in 2005 around the time of the buying of photos?

2. Eichenwald told Berry during this time that he could help him with ideas to make more money. Is this something the Times was aware of?

3. Hours after Eichenwald paid Justin Berry $2,000 on June 8, 2005, Berry produced a video of a 14-year-old boy masturbating. Was the Times aware of this?

4. Images of the 14-year old masturbating were uploaded a few days later to a heretofore dormant gay porn website run by Berry. During this period, Eichenwald became a member of the same website. Was the Times aware he was a member?

5. Eichenwald was not merely a member of the illegal site mentioned above. He also had administrative privileges to enter it, involving a special password available only to those managing the site. He used the password more than 20 times in late June, 2005 to sign onto the site. Was the Times aware of this?

The Times responded that it is "in the process of independently reviewing" the documents unsealed in Nashville.

DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes about sexual politics and immigration. She can be reached at naess2@gmail.com