Aviation executive sues law firm Dechert, others over hacking claims

A logo of Dechert law firm is seen at the entrance to its office in Washington, U.S., May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - An American aviation executive is suing a prominent Philadelphia-based law firm, a New York City public relations company and an Israeli private investigator over claims that they conspired to hack his emails, leak them to the press and cover their tracks.

Missouri-based businessman Farhad Azima said in a lawsuit filed late Thursday that law firm Dechert and its former partner Neil Gerrard were at the center of a plot to use Indian cybermercenaries to leak his emails and then cover up their actions by destroying evidence and tampering with witnesses.

Dechert said in a statement that it denies Azima's claims and will fight the case. An attorney for Gerrard did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The London-based lawyer has previously denied wrongdoing.

Azima's claims, filed in federal court in Manhattan, echo allegations the tycoon has already made in a pair of pending lawsuits in Britain and the United States that say Gerrard masterminded a hack-and-leak operation with the help of Indian spies. It also restates claims made against Gerrard in another British lawsuit that accuses him of abusing a detainee in the Middle East.

The goal, Azima claims, was to use his stolen emails to make sure he lost a 2016 British court battle initiated by one of Gerrard's clients, an Emirati investment agency. A retrial in the British hacking case - where Dechert and Gerrard are also defendants - is expected in 2024.

Azima alleges in his U.S. filing that Dechert spent a decade turning a blind eye to "increasingly clear evidence" that Gerrard - who retired in 2020 - was involved in "serious ethical violations, human rights abuses, and criminal activity, including hacking."

The lawsuit, which seeks more than $100 million in damages and costs, also names as defendants New York public relations group Karv Communications and its president Andrew Frank, who are accused of disseminating Azima's stolen data to the press, as well as Amir Handjani, one of Karv's senior advisors and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Frank, Handjani and Karv did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the litigation. In an email, the Quincy Institute said it "has nothing to do with the suit."

Also named as a defendant is Israeli private investigator Amit Forlit, whom Azima accuses of having "orchestrated the hacking and theft of private emails."

Forlit referred questions to his lawyer, who did not immediately return an email. Forlit previously told Reuters he innocently stumbled across Azima's leaked material online.

Azima's lawsuit follows Reuters' reporting on how Indian cybermercenaries sway legal battles in Europe and the United States.

In June Reuters said that Azima's work exposing the industry was drawing interest from attorneys for other hacking victims, with potential ripple effects on both sides of the Atlantic.

(NOTE: This story was updated to include comment from the Quincy Institute and correct Amir Handjani's title there.)

The case is Farhad Azima v. Dechert LLP, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1:22-cv-08728.

For Azima: Calvin Lee and Kirby Behre, Miller & Chevalier

For Dechert: Unknown

Reporting by Raphael Satter

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