Rob Ford’s Office Hired a Hacker to Destroy the Crack Tape
Nov 5 2013
With additional reporting by Rocco Castoro
UPDATE 04/16/14: We have recently received an Investigation and Digital Forensic Reports prepared by the City of Toronto which conclude that Mr. Massoudi did not send any email from City of Toronto equipment on May 18, 2013. We are investigating this matter further.
UPDATE 11/08/13: Approximately four hours after this piece was published, Amin Massoudi provided comment to VICE via email. He thoroughly denied having any knowledge of the events detailed in the story below and alleged that the “entirety of the story is false.”
For unknown reasons, Amin also sent the exact same email to Canada’s Global News network and Maclean’s who have published it in full. His message offers no explanation as to why he failed to respond to our numerous and very detailed requests for comment over the course of the past four days.
Mark Towhey, Mayor Ford’s former chief of staff, also denied any knowledge of his implications in the matters described below via Twitter. He also failed to respond to our requests for comment over the past four days.
After reading and carefully considering their statements, VICE has once again reached out to both Amin and Mark with an offer to get on the phone and provide answers to the many questions we have been trying to ask for the greater part of a week. Email works too.
Neither Mayor Rob Ford or his brother, Doug, have provided comment.
In late July, an anonymous source approached VICE with claims that he had been hired to hack into a website by Amin Massoudi, the communications director for Toronto's troubled mayor, Rob Ford.
More specifically, the source—who will be referred to as “the hacker” from here on out—said he was asked by Amin to crack the password of a private online directory that allegedly contained a digital copy of the now infamous footage of Mayor Ford smoking a substance out of a crack pipe. Ford has, up until this past Sunday, publicly doubted the existence of the video.
VICE acquired a log of emails that, according to the hacker, detail his correspondence with Amin from May 18 to May 31 of this year. When contacted by VICE, the hacker confirmed the validity of these emails by showing us the transcript, but also said it was a little more complicated than it seemed. He agreed to talk if we would preserve his identity, as publishing it would incriminate him.
In case you aren’t caught up on the intoxicated calamity that is Rob Ford’s contemporary existence, today he bluntly admitted to having smoked crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor.” This insane bombshell comes after last week’s statement from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who confirmed that the crack tape Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on does indeed exist and contains footage that is “consistent” with their reports that claim the video shows Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford also appeared on his weekly radio show this past Sunday to apologize to the City of Toronto and asked for the crack tape to be released to the public “immediately.”
In light of these recent developments, we believe that now is the time to publish portions of Amin and the hacker’s arrangement, after initially receiving the emails in July, for the benefit of public interest.
The correspondence he sent us outlines his own attempt, under Amin’s orders, to break into an online storage account hosted by Bugs3, a free hosting service with “unlimited space.” VICE was able to verify the existence of the account, which was registered under http://goonies.bugs3.com. At the time VICE became aware of the correspondence, the site was up. It has since been taken offline.
The “goonies” subdomain may refer to Dixon St. Goonies, the name of a street gang that was heavily targeted in the massive sweep of drug dealers and gang members that ripped through Toronto in August—a sweep that included a raid on the house where the crack tape was filmed.
The correspondence between the hacker and Amin begins with an email sent from the latter’s City of Toronto email address. That first message, sent from Amin to the hacker on May 18, 2013 at 5:05 PM, two days after Gawker’s story broke, reads:
"Got something I want you to look into. Think you probably know what’s been reported. What’s the best way we can talk… T said you might be able to help us again."
Despite this email being sent from a City of Toronto email address, it cannot be verified by City Hall. This is a direct result of Amin’s promotion to spokesman and communications director that occurred on May 27. On May 18, when this email appears to have been sent, he was still working for Councillor Doug Ford, Rob Ford's brother. Here’s what the City of Toronto says about Amin’s emails that were sent before his promotion:
“With respect to Amin Massoudi's email records please be advised that all records prior to Mr. Massoudi commencing work in the mayor's office on May 27th are considered Councilor [Doug] Ford's personal constituency records. These records are not in the City's custody or control. Thus access cannot be provided."
Doug Ford did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.
Unfortunately, verifying this one email through City Hall is the only thing that would prove the transcript's legitimacy beyond a shadow of a doubt. VICE believes the transcript to be real. The hacker says he doesn't have the long-form email headers from this conversation because he destroyed the account before deciding to disclose the information to VICE.
VICE exhaustively compared the emails allegedly from Massoudi with public notes and comments Massoudi left on his Facebook profile. Both were rife with grammatical errors, poor spelling, and had a similar tendency to overuse elipses. Since Friday, Massoudi refused to respond to several voicemails and emails from VICE asking him to tell his side of the story.
As for the content of the email itself, the hacker told VICE that T stands for Mark Towhey, Ford’s former chief of staff who has been cooperating with the Toronto Police since he was fired on May 23. On Friday, news broke that Towhey has hinted at a link between the murder of Anthony Smith and the crack tape, which Smith’s friends have said they believe was stored on his cell phone at the time of his death. Mark Towhey also refused to provide his side of the story, by ignoring multiple requests from VICE for comment.
During one of our interviews with the hacker in August, he told us that Amin and Ford were certain the goonies directory was the last and only place the video existed because the phone used to film the crack tape was “gone,” a statement the hacker alleged Amin made to him in a text message.
According to the transcript received by VICE, immediately after Amin sent the first email from his official @toronto.ca government email address, he fired off another, informing the hacker he was going to create a new email address.
The next email was sent to the hacker from a Yahoo account that has since been deleted: “Hey, it’s Amin,” he writes—a clumsy introduction that spooked the hacker, who responds:
"Man… half my point was to keep this discrete, makes it hard to do when you drop your first name in the email.. smh [sic]
Anyways, what’s up… what’s goin on with this story? Is it true? and if so..WTF?!"
This exchange was sent on May 19, three days after Gawker broke the story that their editor-in-chief, John Cook, had viewed a video of Rob Ford smoking what appears to be crack, alongside convicted crack dealers, in a trap house.
Amin responded quickly, first by apologizing for compromising the supposedly top-secret situation:
"Oops… well just delete it I guess.
Anyhow, as of now I can’t confirm if the video is real or not we’d heard there was something floating around..
the big guy said someone was trying to blackmail him about a month ago but just told us it was about weed.
I know he’s got some habits, but this would surprise me if it’s really true.
Talked to him again this morning and he mentioned a site or something and a vid on it.. he wanted to know if we know any lowkey computer people who could help us find it.
We need absolute secrecy, but he’s willing to hook them up nicely. I’ll tell you more soon if you think there’s a chance you can help"
When the hacker asked, specifically, what kind of services Amin was looking for, Amin responded, referring to the Bugs3 server with the goonies subdomain:
"Do you know how to delete something from a website’s server? or do you know someone who does?
I can get you the site address to take a look if you think it’s possible, we’re just looking at options now."
The hacker wasn’t entirely confident that he could do the job:
"Damn.. uh, ya technically it's possible, but I'd have to know what the site is & see it...etc. If not myself, I got a buddy who probably can help."
About a week passed with little chatter between Amin and the hacker. Then, on May 27, two days after the Globe & Mail ran a story detailing Doug Ford’s past as a midlevel hash dealer in Etobicoke, Ontario, the hacker reached out to Amin with a new subject line, “Holy Shit!!,” continuing:
"Just got back & am catchin up on the news from weekend.. wtf goin on there too? cleaning house? damn.
And this hash empire story in the Globe!? lmao.. l haven't had good hash in a long time, got any links?
l got a friend comin over tmo & who's good at this sort of thing. Don't worry, I won't say a word either: )
Gawker raised the $ too.. so what's the plan now?"
By this time the crack-tape scandal had reached a fever pitch. A story about the Ford family’s history with violence and drug dealing was emerging from the Globe & Mail at the same time that Gawker had raised $200,000 to buy the tape from Toronto gangsters.
Things must have been hectic in the mayor’s office at the time, as Amin’s next email sent on May 27 illustrated:
"Sorry, it’s been a busy day, just got away. Yes, it’s been a madhouse here.
The closets are being emptied of skeletons all over it seems. I’ve never seen the bros this pissed off before.
Like I said, don’t worry about the Gawker thing. If a video ever comes out, it’s not coming out that way."
Amin also addressed claims Ford had made on May 24, dismissing the possibility that he had used crack cocaine, adding he could not comment on a video “that I have never seen or does not exist.”
"I had nothing to do with that statement but it was one of the worst things I've ever heard. And I hear some dumb statements all the time at CH [City Hall].
Hash empire sounds good about now too.
l need you to keep trying & do or get whoever you need, as long as you think you can keep as much of it a secret as possible, to help.
They said this may be the last place it is. He said if this can be done, he'll match Gawker's plus 10% to you so there's no temptation of pulling a fast one."
According to the hacker, the “plus 10%” refers to a cash bonus Amin offered to him if their goal of scrubbing the video from the private site was accomplished. This email was written just as Gawker had achieved its own goal of raising $200,000 to buy the crack tape from gangsters, thanks to its somewhat misguided IndieGoGo campaign. The $20,000 bonus that the hacker says he was offered appears to have made the transaction feel safer for Ford and Massoudi. If the hacker were able to retrieve the tape, the bonus would likely ensure the hacker wouldn’t double-cross the Fords and go to Gawker to collect their money instead. As for the IndieGoGo “Crackstarter,” eventually Gawker gave up and sent the $200,000 (minus IndieGoGo and Paypal transaction fees) to several Toronto-based charities.
The hacker told us a friend helped him break into the site, using brute-force tactics of trying every known login and password in the universe, but implied to us in an interview that the friend was unaware of the site’s alleged content.
“He just set up a couple of scripts,” the hacker said. “And I just left it running on my PC. It took about a week or so. It just kept running through and running through and then one day I woke up and [the login and password] was there.”
We were able to verify the compromised account was online when the hacker approached us; however, for legal reasons, we did not attempt to log in. The hacker did, however, provide us with screenshots of the password-protected directory’s contents and said he downloaded two video files that were heavily encrypted into a GreenForce Player format. Just in case you’re not an encryption expert, the GFP format is so secure its creators have offered up a bounty—GFP’s source code—to anyone who can decrypt it. So far, that bounty has been left unclaimed.
The hacker was unable to delete either of the video files from the site and therefore never received the bounty offered by Amin. The content of the second video is a mystery, though Police Chief Bill Blair has confirmed that they have a second, “relevant” digital file. There is some online speculation, however, that video number two is a Rob Ford sex tape.
On May 31, over email, Amin told the hacker “the big guy” got the link and login information concerning the web-storage account from a person who “was just picked up out west” and was concerned that their arrest might “impact the site.” This email was sent one day after a man named Hanad Mohamed was arrested in Fort McMurray, Alberta, after fleeing Toronto.
Hanad had previously been charged with first-degree murder for the killing of Anthony Smith, but Canadian authorities have downgraded his charges to aggravated assault and accessory to discharging a firearm in connection with the non-fatal shooting of a man named Muhammad Khattak—who is pictured with Rob Ford in front of the house where the crack tape was filmed.
Hanad has also been charged with accessory after the fact to manslaughter, as the police now believe he drove Nisar Hashimi—a 23 year-old man who turned himself in for the murder, and is currently serving nine years for the manslaughter of Anthony Smith—away from the scene of the Anthony's murder. Three weeks after Hanad’s arrest, in the same Fort McMurray apartment where the cops found him, another man, Hanad Hussein, was thrown from a six-story balcony.
According to the hacker, around this time Amin began to grow extremely anxious and pressured the hacker to finish the job by saying he was considering other options:
"A friend gave me a couple other people who we can trust to talk to this weekend, so there may be a few of you working on it soon.
Whoever can get in and delete any files gets the prize. Cops don't know about the site though, so no worries."
After Amin revealed he had organized some kind of hacking competition to destroy the crack tape and win Ford’s clandestine bounty, he appears to have asked the hacker to help him find “a ball.” While we can’t say for certain which kind of ball he was referencing, it’s safe to say it had nothing to do with billiards in the literal sense:
"Wanted to ask if you could get a ball for me tomorrow, that's the other thing. Let me know ASAP if you can."
The hacker then expressed his disappointment with Amin.
"Hmmm.. do you really think it's wise to
A) bring more people in to work on this
B) buy or ask me to buy drugs when in the middle of this shitstorm
Like man. not a chance. I'm already puttin my neck out for you on [sic] thsi shit, think
I'm gonna risk some fuckin Star reporter spyin on you & then snappin my pic?"
As for the hacker’s concerns that other people may compromise the secrecy of this failed operation, Amin wrote in an email to the hacker: “I've known these other guys I'm bringing in for a long time so I can trust them. I haven't even told them that I have you working on the same thing.”
The hacker replied:
"As long as you trust these guys and keep my name outta they ears, I guess you
gotta do what you can. But if I spend all this time and one of them end up doin
it... Imma still want something for my troubles... yo."
It appears that Amin and the hacker fell out of contact once it was clear he was unable to delete the video from the site, though the hacker did tell us Amin wanted him to “keep doing stuff like this” in the future.
Again, Amin—the mayor’s communications director—did not respond to multiple voicemail and emails requesting comment on this story. He has also deleted his Facebook profile. Rob and Doug Ford have ignored VICE’s requests for comment. More understandably, albeit only slightly, Rob Ford’s former chief of staff Mark Towhey also failed to respond to multiple requests to speak with us.
VICE encourages any of the abovementioned parties to set the record straight if any of the above information is incorrect. We will update the story accordingly.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
Follow Rocco on Twitter: @rocco_castoro
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