Tampa media figure Tim Burke indicted on conspiracy charges

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Tampa media consultant Tim Burke was charged Thursday with 14 federal crimes related to alleged computer hacks at Fox News.

Federal law enforcement officials arrested Burke, 45, on Thursday morning. He appeared in handcuffs in a Tampa federal courtroom Thursday afternoon, wearing a brown sweater, white collared shirt and dark jeans, and was released on his own recognizance shortly thereafter.

The indictment charges Burke with one count of conspiracy; six counts of accessing a protected computer without authorization; and seven counts of intercepting or disclosing wire, oral or electronic communications.

Burke runs Burke Communications, a media and political consulting company. He produces a wide range of video content, including for high-profile media clients like HBO and ESPN. He previously worked for the online news outlets Deadspin and the Daily Beast.

According to the indictment, Burke and an unnamed person used “compromised credentials” to access and save protected commercial broadcast video streams, then disseminate specific clips after taking steps to mask where they came from and how they were obtained.

Burke is married to Tampa City Council member Lynn Hurtak, who was present when Burke was led into the courtroom. In a statement provided by an aide, Hurtak defended Burke, who also managed her 2023 campaign for office.

“I am confident in my husband’s innocence, and I support him completely,” Hurtak stated. “I will not be making additional statements regarding this matter.”

FBI agents last May searched the Seminole Heights home where Burke and Hurtak live. The agents took electronic devices and computers he used for his media business.

A letter from a Tampa federal prosecutor to Fox News, obtained in May by the Tampa Bay Times, described an ongoing criminal probe into alleged computer hacks at the company. The letter did not mention Burke, but the Times confirmed with two people close to the investigation that it related to the search on his home. The letter said the hacked material related to footage of an antisemitic rant from Kanye West and behind-the-scenes footage of Tucker Carlson on his now-canceled show, which was later published in online news outlets.

Fox, Carlson and West are not named in the indictment. But the charges say Burke accessed a video stream of an interview featuring a show host for a “multinational media company based in New York City” on Oct. 6, 2022 — the same day Carlson’s interview with West aired on Fox News. Other streams mentioned in the indictment include footage of a host for the same network discussing the potential threat to his house posed by Hurricane Ian. Burke reported in September 2022 that Carlson owns a house on Gasparilla Island in Southwest Florida.

The indictment also accuses Burke of accessing a file transfer protocol server for “one of the major sports leagues in North America.” In a direct Twitter message included in the indictment, Burke’s alleged co-conspirator described the server as the main location “for all of their footage they post to social, send to partners, etc.”

In a statement, Burke’s lawyers, Michael Maddux and Mark Rasch, defended their client’s “intrepid — and perfectly legal — reporting” on West’s “reprehensible remarks,” and compared his use of login credentials to “the same way users share their Netflix passwords ‘without having been authorized’ by Netflix.”

“While we, like anyone else, condemn computer hacking, we emphatically insist that the facts of this case will demonstrate that there was, in fact, no hacking whatsoever,” Maddux and Rasch stated. “This case will have a significant impact on how people in general access and use the Internet, how they use shared passwords to access websites, and how online journalism is conducted.”

Rasch said in a July letter to federal prosecutors that Burke obtained the videos by following a hyperlink to the live video feeds. Rasch said those feeds didn’t require a username or password and were not encrypted, and no special digital tools were used to access the material. Once content is made public on the internet, it doesn’t require special legal permissions to access, Rasch said.

The lawyers argued that Burke didn’t violate any laws because finding and helping publish the videos is digital journalism and protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s not hacking, it’s just good investigative journalism,” Maddux told the Times before entering the courthouse Thursday afternoon. “We obviously emphatically deny these charges and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to defend him and exonerate him.”

Prosecutor Jay Trezevant asked for Burke to be held on a $30,000 bond, and for conditions that would limit his access to computers and websites that require logins not directly issued to him. Maddux argued that limiting Burke’s internet access and flagging certain behaviors as “unauthorized” would curtail his First Amendment rights and ability to do his job.

“What they view as unauthorized, and what we view as unauthorized, I think is incredibly debatable, and is going to be a question for a jury,” Maddux said.

U.S. Magistrate Amanda Arnold Sansone said limiting Burke’s internet access would be difficult to police, and decided Burke should be released on his own recognizance, provided he have no contact with his alleged co-conspirator. She said she does not believe he’s a flight risk.

In July, Maddux and Rasch demanded the return of Burke’s devices, including two iPhones, two hard drives and 16 computers, and said that the seizure of his equipment violated the law. Trezevant wrote in a July court paper that returning the items would compromise an ongoing investigation. But he said Thursday that the government would file a motion to unseal part of the affidavit that federal officials used to obtain the warrant to search Burke’s property.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation said in a statement Thursday that the indictment “threatens journalists’ ability to gather information online by implying that they have a previously unrecognized duty to ask for express permission to use information they find posted on the internet.” In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said Burke’s case has a “chilling effect on journalism.”

“Things that are publicly addressed on the internet are part of what investigative journalists use every day to obtain their stories,” Maddux said. “And if every digital journalist has to go ask permission when they find something available on the internet that doesn’t have any type of multi-factor authentication or other things, it’s not hacking. It’s just good, investigative hard work.”

Times staff writer Christopher Spata contributed to this story.