Mimesis Law
19 September 2017

Grown Up Punishment For Chris Correa’s Childish Crime

July 20, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Chris Correa, the St. Louis Cardinals’ former scouting director, is going away for 46 months after supposedly hacking into accounts for the Houston Astros. Calling what he did “hacking” might be a bit of a stretch, however:

He began by accessing the email account of one Astros employee who used to work for the Cardinals, referred to in the documents as “Victim A.” Although never mentioned by name in the documents, two of the former employees being described are believed to be Luhnow and Sig Mejdal. Both were key architects in the early days of the Cardinals’ analytic departments, and both are now baseball operations execs in Houston.

Correa took advantage of the fact that “Victim A” had used a password for his Astros email that was similar to the one he used with the Cardinals. He had gained the password when “Victim A” turned in his Cardinals laptop before leaving the team.

This wasn’t exactly a sophisticated cyber attack that Correa orchestrated. Instead, it was something far more simple and opportunistic. Whereas some hacks are the electronic equivalent of planning and executing a bank robbery, this was more like taking a bag of personal letters left on a chair.

Victim A probably should’ve known that his former employer would’ve been able to figure out what his password was on the laptop he returned, but old habits die hard. People hate changing familiar passwords. He surely didn’t expect that someone in a position of power at a professional baseball team would not just figure out what the password was, but see if he was still using it at his new job. It’s even less likely that he expected that person might try variants as well until something worked.

What Chris Correa did was pretty ridiculous. It also just so happens to violate federal law, something that seems to be the case these days with pretty much anything someone can do that another person might look down upon them for doing. As is also the case with pretty much everything these days, prosecutors did their best to make it sound super duper serious:

Chris Correa pleaded guilty in January to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer. As part of his plea, Correa admitted to using the accounts of three Astros employees to view scouting reports, amateur player evaluations, notes on trade discussions and proposed bonuses for draft picks. The information he accessed was given an estimated value of $1.7 million by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

It may be that the Astros’ thoughts about up and coming players really are worth close to $2 million. Baseball is undoubtedly big business. It’s still just baseball, though. Even if you love the sport dearly, there has to be some point where you think to yourself that this isn’t exactly the crime of the century. In fact, if you’re a diehard fan with some knowledge of the sport over the years, you might have an especially hard time understanding why this matters at all.

Baseball has a long and storied history of cheating. From secretly using illegal pitches, overly-pine-tarred bats or corked bats,to a pitcher hiding an emery board and sandpaper in his pants, or even a whole team possibly stealing pitch signs from another team’s catcher, cheating at baseball is pretty much as old as the game itself. Major league or not, it happens. It’s a bunch of grown men who are so highly competitive and so committed to playing a game that they’re able to make a living doing it. What else would you expect?

Correa, of course, didn’t cheat on the field. There’s something almost funny about that, while the idea of some white collar guy stealing a bunch of other white collar guys’ data isn’t really funny at all. Even though the U.S. Attorney would have no problem proving far more than $1.7 million in damages for a pitcher winning the World Series thanks to a forbidden jar of Vaseline under his hat and some expertly-thrown goopballs, that’s not nearly as enticing a defendant to prosecute as a more modern cheater like Correa, someone who does it from the comfort of his office. No kids have his poster hanging on their walls.

Unsurprisingly, Correa may not even be the only white collar cheater in baseball involved in the case:

During his guilty plea six months ago, Correa contended he hacked into the Astros accounts to see if former Cardinals employees had taken proprietary data or statistical models to use in their new positions with the Astros. Correa told prosecutors he found evidence that it did occur, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson told the Post-Dispatch at that time.

Unfortunately for Correa, he got a judge who wasn’t very persuaded by the “they cheated too” argument:

Hughes chastised Correa several times for his actions, comparing them to middle-school behavior. The judge used as an example a teacher asking Correa if he threw the eraser to which Correa would justify the action by saying: “Bobby did, too!”

“I hope it didn’t work then. It’s not going to work now,” Hughes said. The judge likened Correa’s hacking actions to altering a check by adding extra zeroes “and wiping out someone’s bank account.” Hughes also disclosed in court that Correa had been using prescription drugs without a prescription since the hacking charges, and that he could also have been prosecuted for that crime.

The problem with the judge’s analogy is that adding an extra zero to a check deprives the account holder of ten times the money they intended. Correa just looked someplace he shouldn’t have looked. It’s hard to see how the two things are alike at all.

Moreover, the judge too easily dismisses the fact that, if the Astros really were cheating and Correa just cheated to see if they were cheating, then it’s hard to see why the justice system should get involved even if there does happen to be a law directly on point. If everyone in baseball is cheating, from the players on the field to the owners, then why waste precious time and resources on it? It’s a freaking game. It wouldn’t be like there was a victim other than some other cheaters who’ve just yet to be caught.

I’d hope that isn’t the case, but if it is, it would be more than a little discouraging that a judge would be willing to adopt the view that it’s okay to send someone to prison for something everyone in the same game does but where he was the only guy unlucky enough to get caught. The “Bobby did, too!” defense may not be a legally permissible one, but if it’s true, someone in the system should really step back and consider whether it’s worth pursuing the case from a pragmatic standpoint. Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

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  • PVanderwaart
    21 July 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    To put the $1.7 Million in context, the 30 MLB teams signed contracts with this year’s draftees totaling $234,331,200. In round numbers, individual teams spend $5-$10 million. Information about a single play could plausibly make a $1.7M difference.