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Nervous System: The Strange Case of the Forged Email, the Carphone, and the Woman Who Lost Her Job
With the aggressive pace of technological change and the onslaught of news regarding data breaches, cyber-attacks, and technological threats to privacy and security, it is easy to assume these are fundamentally new threats. The pace of technological change is slower than it feels, and many seemingly new categories of threats have been with us longer than we remember. Nervous System is a monthly series that approaches issues of data privacy and cybersecurity from the context of history—to look to the past for clues about how to interpret the present and prepare for the future.
A 1990s illicit office affair involving a disputed termination and a forged email led to one of the first famous incidences of using metadata and forensic analysis in litigation.
In the 1990s, Oracle Corporation found itself embroiled in litigation regarding accusations that cofounder Larry Ellison had orchestrated the firing of a junior staffer after she rebuffed his advances. Adelyn Lee’s lawsuit hinged in large part on a “smoking gun” email between her supervisor and Ellison that indicated Ellison had directed her termination. As a piece of evidence, this email became a highly disputed document. The supervisor insisted he had never sent the message, but it had been gathered from the company’s email servers during the course of discovery. It was therefore considered a real email, sent from one account to another on a certain date and time. If it was fraudulent, the fraud existed in who had written it, and why—but how would one go about proving who was at the keyboard?
The affair between Larry Ellison and Adelyn Lee has been described in numerous media outlets, legal filings, op-ed pieces, and sundry third-party accounts. As the story goes, the two started flirting in an elevator, escalated the relationship with a fast ride in a sportscar, and eventually were together several times a month over a span of more than a year.
That affair ended in April 1993, when Lee was fired from her job at Oracle. She sued the company for wrongful termination, alleging she was let go in retaliation for refusing sex to Ellison. Over the course of the lawsuit, Lee shifted her account of what had transpired between her and Ellison that led to the alleged retaliatory firing, but in any version it was salacious and damaging to Ellison’s image. The lawsuit also dragged Ellison’s playboy lifestyle into the public view and created bombshell headlines. Decades before the #MeToo movement, the tawdry details of the relationship between a middle-aged billionaire and his twenty-something employee caught the press’ attention and created a public relations problem for the world’s second-largest software company.
Lee “had the receipts,” as the saying goes. She had an incriminating email from her supervisor, Craig Ramsey, to Ellison, sent the day after she was terminated, that read “Larry, I’ve terminated Adelyn per your request. cdr.”
As recounted in Matthew Symonds’ book Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle, Ellison replied to Ramsey, copying Oracle counsel, “craig, are you out of your mind! I did not ‘request’ that you terminate adelyn. I decided not to veto your decision. I did not want to get involved in the decision for obvious reasons. this is the most amazing note. wait a second…. craig, did you send this note? larry.”
As a he said/she said situation goes, this presented a new wrinkle. Ramsey said he had been concerned about Lee’s performance for some time and found her to be a difficult and unreliable worker. Nervous about firing the boss’ girlfriend, Ramsey brought the issue to Ellison’s assistant, Jenny Overstreet. According to Ellison’s account, he said that he had recognized the awkwardness of the situation and explicitly took his own judgment out of it, telling Ramsey to make whatever decision Ramsey felt was best. But that version of events was undocumented, and the email seemed to tell a different story.
Much about the email seemed suspicious to Oracle’s legal team, and an internal forensic investigation found evidence that the email was a forgery. Lee’s lawsuit, however, had taken on a life of its own. Proving the email was a fraud would not in and of itself prove Lee’s claims overall were false. Eager to put the public relations mess away, Oracle settled the case. Lee got $100,000, a tiny fraction of the billion dollars she had been seeking, but a resolution nonetheless.
Except it was not over.
Oracle turned over its forensic findings to District Attorney Paul Wasserman. In the summer of 1996, Wasserman brought criminal charges against Lee in San Mateo County Court. Wasserman charged her with multiple felonies, including perjury, preparing false evidence, and altering computer data. Lee pled not guilty.
The trial began in January 1997. In presenting his evidence to the jury, Wasserman started by establishing that Ramsey could not have been at the keyboard.
The suspect email had been sent in 1993, a somewhat prehistoric time for cellphones, but Ramsey’s cellphone records established the backbone of the case. Ramsey had a mobile phone fitted in his car, and the phone logs showed he had made a call from his car at the time the email had been sent.
The next piece of the puzzle came in the headers of the suspect email, showing it had been sent from an IP address located near Lee’s home. Wasserman argued that Lee had obtained her supervisor’s password and logged into the Oracle email system as him, then composed and sent emails from Ramsey’s account.
Lee’s defense attorney, Gordon Rockhill, argued an alternative explanation. He conjectured that Ellison himself, or someone working on his instructions, had planted the email specifically to undermine Lee’s credibility as leverage in the lawsuit.
The jury took less than a day to find Lee guilty on two counts of perjury and two counts of falsifying documents. She was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to repay the $100,000.
The Adelyn Lee case stands as a reminder that the forensic circumstances and metadata surrounding a document produced in eDiscovery can sometimes be at least as consequential—if not more so—than the content of that document.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.