An employee at Best Buy’s nationwide computer repair center served as a paid FBI informant who for years tipped off agents to illicit material found on customers’ hard drives, according to the lawyer for a Newport Beach doctor facing child pornography charges as a result of information from the employee.
Federal authorities deny they directed the man to actively look for illegal activity. But the attorney alleges the FBI essentially used the employee to perform warrantless searches on electronics that passed through the massive maintenance facility outside Louisville, Ky., where technicians known as Geek Squad agents work on devices from across the country.
Since 2009, “the FBI was dealing with a paid agent inside the Geek Squad who was used for the specific purpose of searching clients’ computers for child pornography and other contraband or evidence of crimes,” defense attorney James Riddet claimed in a court filing last month.
Riddet represents Dr. Mark Albert Rettenmaier, a gynecological oncologist who practiced at Hoag Hospital until his indictment in November 2014 on two felony counts of possession of child pornography. Rettenmaier, who is free on bail, has taken a leave from seeing patients, Riddet said.
A hearing on the topic where Riddet hopes to question Meade is scheduled for August.
According to Riddet, Rettenmaier’s case began in November 2011, when he took a computer hard drive to a Best Buy store for repairs.
The drive was shipped to the maintenance center in Kentucky, and in January 2012, Meade contacted a local FBI office to say a technician had found something suspicious.
Meade showed an FBI agent photos on Rettenmaier’s hard drive, and the agent recognized them as child pornography, according to court records. The Geek Squad had to use specialized technical tools to recover the photos because they were either damaged or had been deleted, according to court papers. Riddet contends it is impossible to tell when the files were placed on the hard drive or who accessed them.
Based on the discovery of the photos, the FBI obtained a search warrant for Rettenmaier’s Laguna Hills home, which it raided in February 2012, court documents state.
During the search, Rettenmaier returned home and investigators seized the iPhone he had with him, according to prosecutors.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Orange County indicted Rettenmaier on allegations of possessing child pornography on a laptop, multiple hard drives and the iPhone.
Prosecutors allege the phone alone held more than 800 pictures of naked or partially nude girls.
According to Riddet, an informant file he received from prosecutors shows Meade began speaking with the FBI as early as 2007.
Riddet claims the informant file, which is under seal and not available to the public, shows Meade was officially signed up as a source for child pornography investigations in 2009.
In 2010 and 2011, Meade contacted the FBI more than a dozen times before his informant file was closed in November 2012, according to Riddet’s court filings.
The file also reportedly shows the FBI paid Meade $500 for his work between October 2010 and September 2011.
If Meade was working on behalf of the FBI, the practice may have run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, according to one prominent legal scholar.
“If the government wants to look at somebody’s computer, they need to get a warrant,” said UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, an expert on constitutional law.
But whether paying informants automatically makes them agents of the government is not a clearly defined legal issue. According to Chemerinsky, the outcome of Rettenmaier’s case will greatly depend on its individual circumstances.
“It’s not going to be a bright-line test,” he said.
Federal prosecutors declined to talk about the case on the record, but in court filings they contested the idea that Meade was doing the FBI’s bidding.
“I never asked or ordered Mr. Meade or any Best Buy employee to search for child pornography or gather information on child pornography or any other crimes on my behalf or on behalf of the FBI,” Tracey Riley, the FBI agent Meade contacted, wrote in a declaration filed in January.
According to Riley, Meade essentially became the Geek Squad’s liaison to the FBI. He and Riley spoke frequently because Meade was the one who reached out any time a technician found child pornography.
The declaration acknowledges that Meade was paid the $500, but it doesn’t explain why.
According to Best Buy public relations director Paula Baldwin, Geek Squad policy “requires that we notify local authorities if our Geek Squad agents find suspicious content as they are opening files necessary to perform the services specified on the customer’s work order.”
Baldwin declined to comment on whether employees are allowed to accept compensation from law enforcement for such reports.
Meade could not be reached for comment, but in his own declaration in the case, he wrote that he reported the alleged pornography because of Best Buy’s policy, not on any direction from the FBI.
“I never reviewed evidence or communicated to the FBI out of a motivation to get paid by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency,” Meade wrote.
In fact, he wrote, he doesn’t remember being compensated.
Nevertheless, Riddet contends the payment acknowledged in Riley’s declaration crossed a line.
“If, as the government contends, Meade was a well-meaning employee of Best Buy who was merely following company policy, and if, further, he was just a good citizen calling the FBI when his job required him to do so, why was he paid at all?” Riddet wrote in documents filed last month.
He argues that by giving Meade $500, the FBI was encouraging him — explicitly or not – to find child pornography.