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Dechert may face UK lawsuit over Indian hacking claim

6 minute read

Signage is seen outside of the law firm Dechert LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Farhad Azima alleges firm, former partner were "party to" cyber espionage
  • Draft counterclaims would add Dechert as defendant in London case

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(Reuters) - An Iranian-American businessman wants to sue U.S. law firm Dechert over allegations of hacking, seeking a London court's approval to add it as a defendant in a long-simmering dispute with the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA).

Aviation tycoon Farhad Azima alleges that a former partner at the Philadelphia-based law firm helped direct Indian hackers to steal his emails as his relationship with RAKIA soured over a pair of botched business deals.

Missouri-based Azima says RAKIA, a Dechert client, used the stolen emails to win a $4 million-plus fraud judgment against him in British court. The judge in that case said last year that Azima hadn't proven his hacking allegations, but a UK appeals court ruled in March that Azima could retry his claims, citing new evidence linking the cyberespionage campaign to two Indian companies, BellTroX InfoTech Services and CyberRoot Risk Advisory.

Azima now wants Dechert and its former London partner Neil Gerrard to answer the allegations in court as well, asserting ahead of a London retrial expected later this year that they helped direct the Indian hackers via a North Carolina-based private investigator, Nicholas del Rosso.

Dechert declined comment. Lawyers for Gerrard and del Rosso did not return messages seeking comment. Both have previously denied having anything to do with the leaked emails, which captured Azima's private communications with friends and business partners.

Azima's allegations against Gerrard and Dechert are spelled out in a draft counterclaim first filed in London's High Court and submitted late last month alongside an application for foreign discovery in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Azima, represented in the U.S. by Miller & Chevalier, accuses Dechert in the amended lawsuit of "being party to the hacking" and is seeking to add the firm and Gerrard as defendants to its counterclaim.

Dechert opposes the move, a spokesman for Azima said. The spokesman said a two-day hearing on the matter was scheduled to begin in London on Thursday.

Azima's battle with RAKIA – an investment fund based in emirate Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates – stems from disputes over two failed joint ventures, a pilot training facility at the emirate's airport and a luxury hotel in the country of Georgia.

Azima has in previous litigation claimed that Dechert and Gerrard "engaged and paid" del Rosso, whom he alleges "oversaw and directed the hacking." However the effort to add the lawyer and his former firm as defendants is new and has not previously been reported.

Michael Levi, a professor of criminology at Cardiff University in Wales, said it was highly unusual for a law firm – let alone a prominent one – to be accused of hacking.

"As far as we know, this is a very rare event and it's very rare for it to be pursued in court," Levi said.

Azima's draft complaint also seeks to add as defendants British private investigator Stuart Page and London-based executive James Buchanan.

A lawyer for Page, John Fordham of Stephenson Harwood, said his client was opposing the move to add him as a defendant because he "had no involvement in and no knowledge of" the hacking. Buchanan's lawyer did not return messages.

Dechert already faces at least two other lawsuits connected to Gerrard, who represented the interests of Ras Al Khaimah and was one of the law firm's leading white collar partners before he retired last year.

Gerrard recently testified in a case brought against Dechert by ENRC, a mining company that accuses him of leaking privileged data to British investigators in a plot to boost his fees. He's also being pursued in a separate case over allegations that he and two Dechert colleagues took part in the detention and interrogation of a Jordanian attorney in Ras Al Khaimah, where the latter said he'd been tortured.

Gerrard and Dechert have denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Azima's effort to sue Dechert over hacking is further fallout from last year's exposure of the Indian cyberespionage firm BellTroX.

Reuters has previously reported that BellTroX was often contracted by Western private detectives working at the behest of law firms, citing former operatives.

Read More:

Israeli charged in global hacker-for-hire scheme wants plea deal -court filing

Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide

London lawyer tells court ENRC conspiracy allegations are "bonkers"

Additional reporting by Christopher Bing and Joel Schechtman.
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