HOUSTON (AP) — The federal hacking investigation of the St. Louis Cardinals could take longer if high-level executives are implicated in the breach of the Houston Astros' database, according to legal experts.
The investigation is likely several months old, with much of the computer forensics work likely already complete, said Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. Much of that forensics work would include scouring Astros servers for information about who logged on and whether any IP addresses — numbers that identify a particular computer on the Internet — lead back to someone inside the Cardinals organization.
"At this stage in the investigation it will be key to determine, as to where the trail goes, who may have ordered or was aware of the activity," Hilder said.
"If the trail ends at rogue employees, obviously the investigation will conclude quicker," Hilder said. "If they implicate higher-ups, there will have to be a fair amount of corroboration and that may take a while."
Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. has blamed the alleged hack on "roguish behavior" by a handful of individuals. An attorney for the team has said high-level executives were not involved in the scandal. The team said Thursday that they fired scouting director Chris Correa, but declined to say why.
Investigators will use information they've gathered — including possibly emails, texts and other communications between workers within the Cardinals' organization — to help guide interviews with employees and figure out who ultimately was behind the security breach, said Michael Zweiback, a Los Angeles defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
But investigators won't get to ask whether high-level executives were involved unless they first connect someone to the keystrokes that set the alleged crime in motion.
Zweiback said that when he served as chief of the cyber and intellectual property crimes section with the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office, he investigated cases which "would have tremendous forensic evidence that would lead to a specific computer but would run into dead ends because we did not have information to show the user who was accessing it."
"What we found was that even the most highly sophisticated had a tendency sometimes to make mistakes," Zweiback said. "The assumption that the people doing this are highly sophisticated is not an assumption that usually bears out."
Once the investigation has concluded, prosecutors will likely pursue charges under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison for a first-time offense.
The act was initially created in 1986 to protect information on government computers but "over time, the protected computer has been expanded to computers generally because of the impact of the Internet on commerce," said Joe Pitts, a law school lecturer at Stanford University.
"We don't think of corporate espionage as happening in professional sports. We don't think of it extending to mom, baseball and apple pie," Pitts said.
While more difficult to prove, those implicated could be charged for stealing trade secrets if prosecutors can determine the Astros' database held more than simply proprietary information, Zweiback said.
Hilder said that even though the hacking investigation is focused on the national pastime rather than national security, authorities are still taking the probe very seriously, particularly in the shadow of the recently publicized U.S.-led investigation of FIFA officials on allegations of bribery and racketeering.
"People want to believe that sport competitions are evenhanded and the fact that the fix may be in or one team wants to get an advantage over the other (shows) it's important to look into this to ensure the integrity of the game," Hilder said.
Vertuno reported from Austin. Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70 and Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/JimVertuno