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Burden of Proof

Sub Commander Testifies and Faces Possible Court Martial; New York Busboy Steals From America's Richest Through Impersonation

Aired March 21, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CMDR. SCOTT WADDLE, USS GREENEVILLE: When I met with the Japanese families, I made a promise to them. That they would hear my side of the story, from my perspective. That I would help them achieve, hopefully, an understanding as to the cause of this accident.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: The commander of a U.S. submarine which sank a Japanese fishing vessel testifies before a Navy court of inquiry. The accident could cost him a court martial.

Plus, a New York busboy is accused of using the Internet to steal millions of dollars from some of the richest people in America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN KERIK, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: Mr. Abdallah had attempted to gain access to 217 people that were mentioned in "Forbes" 400 richest people. Out of that, he tried to gain access to 217 of those people's personal accounts in some form.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Yesterday in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a Navy court of inquiry into the sinking of a Japanese fishing vessel by the USS Greeneville ended with a sworn testimony of the sub's commander.

In a surprise development, Commander Scott Waddle testified without immunity, telling the court, quote: "As commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident. And for the rest of my life, I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions and actions that resulted in the loss of the Ehime Maru."

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Waddle also told the three presiding admirals, quote,: "I was trying to do the best job that I was assigned."

After Waddle's testimony, his attorney argued against court martial. Nine aboard the Japanese fishing vessel were killed when the submarine crew was demonstrating a drill for a group of onboard civilians.

COSSACK: Joining us today from Honolulu, Hawaii, is Charles Gittins, attorney for Commander Scott Waddle.

Charles, why would your client go ahead and testify when he was denied the immunity that you had asked for?

CHARLES GITTINS, CMDR. SCOTT WADDLE'S ATTY.: Commander Waddle intended to testify at all times from the day he hired me. We asked for testimonial immunity in a way that would permit him to testify without the potential that the words he gave would be used against him in a court martial.

He intended to testify. The fact that it was denied really didn't affect his decision.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charlie, how do you determine -- I mean, what is the three panelists, the admirals, look at to determine whether or not to take it from the court of inquiry and send it to a court martial?

GITTINS: Well, I think you have to look at whether or not there was criminal intent, whether there was criminal negligence.

And I think the evidence was pretty clear that, at least from commander Waddle's point of view and his level of culpability, he was just doing the best job he could. He may have fallen short on the 9th of February. But he certainly didn't have any criminal intent. He didn't have any criminal ideations. It was just an accident.

VAN SUSTEREN: But, why -- I mean, look, I feel very sorry for the commander as well as for the victims on the Japanese vessel. But why did this happen?

GITTINS: Well, it was a series of circumstances and mistakes that combined together in series to result in an accident. It's not a lot different than an aircraft crash where you can trace back circumstances and errors by the crew that resulted in an accident.

COSSACK: But Charles...

GITTINS: In this case, you could follow very clearly.

COSSACK: But Charles, that's the point. I mean, the day before your client testified, a seaman, a radar operator, testified. And testified that he was tracking the Japanese fishing vessel. And it had it enclosed from 15,000 yards to 4,000 yards. And yet, he didn't inform the commander.

Now, I suppose your position is, If I didn't have the information, I can't act on it. But doesn't the buck really stop with the commander to make sure he gets that information? GITTINS: Well, a captain who is on the periscope has one job and one job only. And that's to look through the periscope. He is -- at that point, the ship is very vulnerable. And he is required to do a visual search. Had the fire control technician told Commander Waddle about that targeted at 4,000 yards, this accident would not have occurred. There's no doubt about that.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's the range of things that can happen to your client at this point?

GITTINS: Anything from a letter of reprimand to general court- martial that could result in confinement for -- I think it's about 27 years. And a dismissal from the service, which would terminate Commander Waddle's military service and his right to retirement benefits.

VAN SUSTEREN: Looking at a comparable case, if there is such a -- is such a things as a comparable case, and we get sort of a measure of the likely range what's going to happen?

GITTINS: Well, I would say that Commander Waddle is much less culpable than the commander officer of USS Vincennes, which shot down an airline full of Iranians.

I think he's much less culpable than the commanding officer of the USS Cole, who had no action taken against him.

COSSACK: Charles, the allegation is that your client, the commander, took that submarine out that day for no better reason than to show it off for visiting civilians.

If that's true, and in fact this accident happened, I mean your client is charged with negligent homicide. Isn't that putting your client in a very difficult position if there was no compelling reason to take the submarine out?

VAN SUSTEREN: Wait a second, Roger. Let met just step in one second. You used the term "to show off." It is routine. Even, I've been on an aircraft carrier; is that the Navy shows civilians...

COSSACK: No, no. The point I'm trying to...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... to demonstrate.

COSSACK: Charles, what I'm suggesting is that the decision to take the submarine out that day was your client's decision alone. Is that true?

GITTINS: That is absolutely not true. He was -- the decision was made by his superiors, that the Distinguished Visitor Cruise would go forward, even though the Greeneville had no other mission that day. And Commander Waddle carried out that order.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charlie, I've got to tell you. As I just said, that I was on an aircraft carrier for the weekend. And frankly I've never seen anything as amazing as that aircraft carrier. I would hate to see that civilians not be exposed what our armed services are doing.

Is this -- what's going to happen now? Is this now going to deter the Navy from showing civilians what our Navy does?

GITTINS: Well, I hope that it will refocus the Navy on what a proper distinguished visitor cruise should be. That they will publish some sort of guidance to commanding officers, because there was none for Commander Waddle. He did what he thought was the appropriate thing under the circumstances, in showing his vessel off once he was given that mission, and showing its capabilities to the civilians.

I'm sure that there are lessons to be learned in the Distinguished Visitor Program as a result of this accident.

COSSACK: Charles, there's no question at least from -- at least the questions yesterday from the admirals that they believe your client ran at the very least a sloppy ship. How does your client plead to at least that allegation?

GITTINS: On that day, there was some sloppiness related to the watch bill, which had nothing to do it this accident.

There was some sloppiness in terms of advising the chief of staff who was on board the vessel. But that was also not entirely clear that he was acting as the chief of staff on board that day. That he was to visit with his son-in-law who was the chief engineer on the boat.

Yes, there were some mistakes. There's no doubt about it. But most of those mistakes, the sloppiness as it you call it, weren't related to this accident in any way.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles Gittins, thank you very much joining us today from Hawaii.

Up next, and switching gears: He's not Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart. But police say he tried to impersonate them. And he didn't even have to dress in drag. Had we known the bridge to the 21st century would be so complicated? Don't go away.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

An Atlanta judge ordered a retrial of the hit-and-run case of a man who was charged in the 1998 accident which killed a woman.

Fulton County Judge Alice Bonner had dismissed the case on March 6 when prosecutors were 15 minutes late to court. Judge Bonner has also removed herself from the case.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: New York police have cracked an unusual case involving the Internet, a busboy, and millions of dollars from the bank accounts of America's richest people. Thirty-two-year-old Abraham Abdallah was charged with multiple counts of criminal impersonation, forgery, and fraud. He was arrested this month carrying the home addresses, birth dates, and social security numbers of more than 200 tycoons and celebrities.

Does he have yours, Roger?

COSSACK: I hope not. Abdallah's alleged inspirational almanac -- I'm not rich enough for this guy -- a copy of "Forbes" 400 richest people in America. Now, the suspected targets are among the upper crust of the nation's rich and famous: Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Steven Spielberg, and many, many others.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us today from New York is the attorney for Abraham Abdallah, Samuel Gregory. Also from New York, Murray Weiss, reporter for the "New York Post."

COSSACK: And joining us here in Washington is Brian Jones (ph), computer crimes expert Morgan Wright, and Jenna Clarke (ph). And in the back are Chris Kenny (ph) and Emily Leonard (ph).

I want to go right to you, Murray. Tell me exactly what Mr. Abdallah is accused of doing.

MURRAY WEISS, "NEW YORK POST": He's accused of, basically, concocting a very complicated multilayered high tech fraud of people's identities. He gained access to their confidential credit reports, which gave him access to their social security numbers, home addresses, bank, brokerage accounts, and even the coveted mother's maiden name. Armed with that, he was able to actually clone their identities and then try -- all electronically, all anonymously, to go into their brokerage and investment bank accounts and begin to transfer money from them. In addition, he had their credit cards, which gave him another avenue for thievery.

VAN SUSTEREN: Sam, let me use a great Midwestern expression that Roger will love: Did your client live high off the hog? I mean, what's with all this money?

SAMUEL GREGORY, ABRAHAM ABDALLAH'S ATTORNEY: Not at all. He was working 30 hours a week at a restaurant on Smith Street in Brooklyn called Zatoon's (ph). The press reported that he was driving a brand- new 2,000 Volvo that was his. It wasn't his; it was registered with his brother. It's a legal car. And he was living a very simple life. He stayed with his father and took care of his father and his younger sister, who's two years old. who's got some medical problems -- a very simple life.

VAN SUSTEREN: Sam, you say a very simple life, but at least, it's being reported that he has 14 previous run-ins with the feds and 11 previous run-ins with the state -- arrests and stuff, so it's not quite so take care of the...

COSSACK: In fact, he even assisted the feds once, in helping them in another fraud charge.

VAN SUSTEREN: He's not exactly your run-of-the-mill busboy. GREGORY: You asked me whether or not he was living a simple life, and he is. He does have a criminal history, and my understanding is that he did take part in an educational video to try to assist authorities in preventing fraud crimes. But he was definitely living a simple life.

The allegation is that he had the credit information and personal backgrounds I think on 213 or 217 celebrities and CEO's. The "New York Post" and Murray broke the story yesterday and had a front page headline that said that these people had been scammed. In fact, my information is that none of the people who appeared on the front page of the "Post" -- Martha Stewart, Michael Eisner, Ted Turner -- have had anything taken from them by Mr. Abdallah, and there's no allegation that he tried to do that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is the crime -- then, let me ask you this -- let's assume hypothetically that I can go in and get all of this credit information about Ted Turner and Martha Stewart, among others, but I don't steal any money. Is that a crime, for me to collect this personal information?

GREGORY: Under the state's system, if you posed as being that person, and that was proven, you would be guilty of criminal impersonation if you tried to benefit from that particular act. And here, I think, the question's going to be, down the road, whether or not there was an intent on Mr. Abdallah's part to, in the future, defraud all of these people.

COSSACK: Murray, tell us the evidence that was allegedly found when the police arrested Mr. Abdallah. There was a great deal of evidence collected from his apartment. What was some of it?

VAN SUSTEREN: And the evidence that he tried to benefit. Was there any evidence he tried to benefit?

WEISS: Well, the case itself was broken, if you will, when there was an attempt to transfer $10 million from Thomas Siebel's account at Merrill Lynch. The account didn't quite carry enough money for the $10 million to be transferred from the honest account of Mr. Siebel to a newly set up account in the name of Thomas Siebel that was set up in a virtual bank in Australia. So the allegation is that Mr. Abdallah, armed with Mr. Siebel's confidential information, cloned it, set up this account in his name in a virtual bank and then tried to take the money there.

In addition to that kind of evidence and cell phones, they found and recovered the "Forbes" magazine on which he meticulously jotted down, on the photographs and next to the biographies of the 217 people, everything from their home addresses, cell phone numbers, social security, right down to mother's maiden names.

And to tell you the truth, I saw it; it's quite an extraordinary magazine. You know, you sit there and you see Warren Buffett's name, and then you see his home address, his home number, and his cell phone number. In addition to that, they seized a Sony laptop computer from his home, they found some ledgers and notebooks, all meticulously kept. He sent packages all around the city to mailbox drops and nonexistent addresses that he had couriers pick up. He followed them on the Web via the FedEx and UPS routing systems. There's a tremendous amount of evidence against him.

And one of the more interesting aspects of the story, however, is that he used computers at the public library branches, which actually shows another level of his sophistication here because the public library branches, unlike everybody's personal computers, actually purge themselves of data and usage every three days. So I think it's alleged that he knew that any trail that tried to lead back to him would basically be destroyed from the Web, which once again would thwart any kind of law enforcement efforts in the cyber-universe.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back, has the Internet opened a Pandora's box of white-collar crime? How do you this? We'll find out all about it when we return. Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: An Oklahoma state judge Tuesday blocked an attempt by defense attorneys to call former Attorney General Janet Reno to testify in what murder trial?

A: The trial of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: A 32-year-old New York busboy has been arrested and charged with forgery, fraud and criminal impersonation. Abraham Abdallah allegedly impersonated some of the wealthiest people in America over the Internet. Now, the alleged crimes unraveled when an e-mail request that transferred $10 million from a Merrill Lynch account belonging to Thomas Siebel raised red flags.

Morgan, I don't want you to tell us how you do these things, but tell us about Internet crime and this kind of thing. Is it on the rise? And is there a way to protect the -- people be able to protect themselves?

MORGAN WRIGHT, FMR. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: No. 1: Is it on the rise? Absolutely. People are getting more and more connected. There are more and more computers, more and more Internet accounts being set up. and the more there is, the more people are going to want to do. It's curiosity. And as these things go, the people who have always been in the criminal element that used to defraud people now just move their activities online because it becomes more efficient, more widespread, easier to do.

And it's become harder to track. And that's the nice thing about the criminal element about moving to the Internet: It becomes very difficult to put fingerprints and a face with the actual act.

COSSACK: Is the price you pay for being on the Internet getting to a point where it is not worth it anymore, where you to give -- where you are putting at risk all of this personal information? I mean, isn't there a way that consumers can protect themselves?

WRIGHT: Oh, there absolutely is. And it is the uneducated people that constitute a lot of the problem, the people who just naturally assume it is safe.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think he's talking about us.

(LAUGHTER)

COSSACK: I know he is talking about us.

WRIGHT: Well, give me your credit card number. We will find out.

But, I mean, it becomes -- people are not sure how to deal with this, so that they might blindly give out their credit card number. But there are a lot of things to do. But if we start mentioning things like digital certificates, digital signatures, X.509, there's a lot of people who don't understand the technology behind it. But there's...

VAN SUSTEREN: I know two.

WRIGHT: But there's a lot of things you can do using the same technology that is being used against you to absolutely protect yourself. But it has to become more pervasive and it has to become more of a standard that's out there.

(CROSSTALK)

COSSACK: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Sam, I don't want to invade the attorney-client privilege, but I don't know what you have said in court in terms of trying to discuss bond. But what explanation is there for this transfer of money -- or at least attempted transfer of money -- of this $10 million?

GREGORY: You know, I haven't gotten a chance to look at the paperwork on that and verify whether or not, in fact, there's even any evidence that Abdallah is responsible for that transfer. So it is difficult for me to comment on that.

As you know, Greta, the way it works is, there's an investigation and then an arrest. And in an arraignment, the prosecution holds basically all the evidence in a case. You speak to your client about the facts in the case. Obviously, as you said, you are not permitted to talk about what your client told you.

So, in the early stages of a case, I think defense counsel is really at a disadvantage. In fact, just recently, the "New York Post" began a story on the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. And it was a story about widespread fraud in the office. And no names were mentioned. They said it was six employees who were fixing cases -- or suspected of fixing cases.

And as the days passed by, it became -- there was one person who was offered a bribe and turned down the money in a sting operation conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office. So I think that the point of this is that, before the fat lady sings, we have to withhold judgment and really know the facts in a case and try to be fair in the way we report on a case.

In this case, I think that it is fair for people to suggest that, if he had the credit information, credit cards and privileged background knowledge about 213 people, that the intent was to steal from those people. But when we look at the facts, it becomes clear that he had this information for an extended period of time and that, with respect to the people who are on the front page of the "Post," there was no effort to defraud those people. And I...

COSSACK: Sam, what was he doing with that information, then?

GREGORY: Well...

COSSACK: I don't have that kind of information. And it is tough to get.

GREGORY: Well, Roger, it is not tough to get. If you ask Morgan Wright whether or not he can get that information, I'm sure he'll tell you he could get on his computer today and get it.

(CROSSTALK)

COSSACK: We have only got a short time left.

Morgan, you have got to get this stuff, don't you?

WRIGHT: Well, you've have to be a little creative. And what his client has been alleged to do really doesn't have so much to do with technology as it does with: How do I use my social skills or interpersonal skills to get information out of people so that they assume that I know what I'm doing?

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, but there's important point, though, at least what I'm -- I mean, the transfer of the money, the allegation of it is certainly curious to me. And that would certainly indicate a crime. But if it's simply -- if he had this information, and if he says -- I mean, for whatever reason -- he's nosy, he's gossipy, he's weird, he's whatever -- then it is not a crime. He's actually got to have taken -- have gotten something.

WRIGHT: Well, I would almost disagree. It depends on how he gets the information, too.

VAN SUSTEREN: Right, unless it's -- unless he breaks into someplace where he's not

(CROSSTALK) WRIGHT: If it's open source. If it's on the Web...

VAN SUSTEREN: But, anyway, I get the last word today. That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you very much for watching.

COSSACK: And we will be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. See you then.

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