Florida journalist indicted for alleged conspiracy, computer fraud, wiretapping
Florida-based independent journalist Tim Burke was charged by the Justice Department with 14 felony counts alleging conspiracy, wiretapping and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in an indictment unsealed on Feb. 21, 2024.
FBI agents raided Burke’s home and office in May 2023 in connection to a criminal probe into “alleged computer intrusions and intercepted communications at the Fox News Network,” according to reports at the time.
In total, federal agents seized nine computers, seven hard drives, four cellphones and four notebooks from Burke’s home and the guesthouse that serves as his office. More than nine months after the raid, only a small portion of the electronic devices and files seized by law enforcement has been returned.
The indictment, which was filed on Feb. 15 but unsealed a week later, alleges that Burke and an unnamed co-conspirator used “compromised credentials” to gain access to websites with the live feeds of two New York City-based media companies, and to download files and disseminate them.
Burke is charged with:
- One count of conspiracy;
- Six counts of accessing a protected computer without authorization;
- Five counts of wiretapping; and
- Two counts of disclosing communications obtained through illegal wiretapping.
Follow the ongoing coverage of the 14 felony charges against Burke in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s Arrest/Criminal Charge category.
FBI returns additional equipment seized from Tampa journalist
The FBI has returned additional equipment and data seized during a May 2023 raid on independent journalist Tim Burke’s home newsroom in Tampa, Florida, according to an evidence log filed on Nov. 9 and reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The log, a status report on the Justice Department’s search of Burke’s property, indicates that the department has returned an additional laptop, two cellphones and four notebooks. It has also deleted the data stored on them from its systems and produced some of the data from devices still in custody.
Burke told the Tracker that two additional computers that the log indicates were returned belong to Lynn Hurtak, his wife and a Tampa City Council member, one of which was jointly used by the couple.
In total, federal agents seized nine computers, seven hard drives, four cellphones and four notebooks from Burke’s home and the guesthouse that serves as his office, along with two computers belonging to Hurtak and a third that the couple both used.
Still being held are two cellphones, seven computers and three storage devices.
Burke filed a motion in July seeking the return of his devices and to unseal the affidavit that accompanied the FBI’s search warrant. The judge denied that motion and on Oct. 23 overruled a request to reconsider. Burke appealed that decision on Nov. 1.
“It's a little like someone taking your car and then giving you the gas back,” Burke told the Tracker. “That gas runs the car but I still don't have the car.”
FBI returns some equipment seized from Tampa journalist
The FBI has now returned a small portion of the equipment and data it seized during a May raid on independent journalist Tim Burke’s home newsroom in Tampa, Florida, according to an evidence log filed on Sept. 29, 2023, and reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The log, an attachment to the Justice Department’s status report on the search of Burke’s property, indicates that the department has returned one computer and four storage devices. It has also deleted the data stored on them from its systems and produced some of the data from devices still in custody. The filing estimated that Burke’s remaining files not subject to explicit seizure in the warrant would be produced by early December.
Burke told the Tracker via text message that he and his legal team are examining some of what was returned, as some files appear to have been altered while in FBI custody.
Burke also said an additional computer that the log indicates was returned belongs to Lynn Hurtak, his wife and a Tampa City Council member.
Still in police custody are four cellphones, eight computers, three storage devices and four notebooks. Burke’s motion for the return of his devices and to unseal the affidavit that accompanied the FBI’s search warrant was denied on Sept. 22.
In an Oct. 9 followup motion asking the judge to reconsider, Burke called the digital data and information that the government has returned since the raid mostly “useless … in its returned and copied format.”
Burke added that the department’s hold on his archives of recorded video livestreams, which he called his journalistic work product and livelihood, constitutes an “indefinite prior restraint on his First Amendment right to report and publish newsworthy information.”
Florida-based independent journalist Tim Burke awoke on May 8, 2023, to the sound of FBI agents banging on the door of his Tampa home with a search warrant. By the time the raid ended approximately 10 hours later, agents had seized virtually all of the electronics in his newsroom.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that the raid was connected to a criminal probe into “alleged computer intrusions and intercepted communications at the Fox News Network.” At least six behind-the-scenes clips of former Fox host Tucker Carlson were leaked over the past year. The broadcaster has asserted that it did not authorize the release of the footage and that its systems could have been hacked.
Burke, who worked previously at Deadspin and The Daily Beast, has made a career of capturing publicly available livestreams. The Times reported that he launched Burke Communications in 2019, offering contract work and consulting, as well as access to his 181,000-gigabyte video archive.
According to the search warrant for his home, which was unsealed on May 26, officers were authorized to seize all of Burke’s electronics or physical records of alleged violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The warrant also stipulated that officers could force residents to unlock devices enabled with biometrics, including fingerprints or facial recognition.
In total, federal agents seized nine computers, seven hard drives, four cellphones and four notebooks from Burke’s home and the guesthouse that serves as his office. Two computers belonging to Lynn Hurtak, Burke’s wife and a Tampa City Council member, were also seized, along with a third that the couple both used, Burke told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in August.
Attorney Mark Rasch, who is representing Burke and created the Justice Department’s Computer Crime Unit, denied any criminal behavior by Burke.
“Hacking is not simply obtaining information that someone would rather you not,” Rasch told the Tracker. “And hacking is also not going to a website that someone would prefer that you not or finding information that they would prefer that you not.”
Rasch said that Burke uses no special software or tools to access or record live feeds, and that viewing them does not require a username or password. Rather, Burke has cultivated search skills and sources that direct him to the URLs where they are publicly visible.
Burke told the Tracker that he’s worked as an assignment editor his entire career, and sees his current work as an extension of that: sifting through content to identify newsworthy material for publication.
“I have always promoted my approach of taking video in its most raw nature as being the best we have when it comes to veracity,” Burke said. “The raw video is the truth. That’s what journalism is, that’s what we’re reporting.”
But Burke told the Tracker that the seizure of his electronics has made it impossible for him to continue his journalistic work.
“It’s very difficult for me to do most of the things that I do as a journalist without my contacts that are on my phone or without the video editing softwares that are on my computer,” Burke said. “I just want to get back to doing this thing that I’ve dedicated my life to.”
The seizures also caused Burke to be locked out of his email, social media, banking and other important accounts. According to Rasch, federal prosecutors asked that Burke waive his Fifth Amendment rights and provide the passcode to his cellphone so it could be cloned. Burke refused.
Burke told the Tracker that prosecutors later said they no longer needed the passcode, and allowed him to access the device to transfer the two-factor authentication applications he needed.
On July 21, Rasch filed a motion for the return of Burke’s devices and to unseal the affidavit submitted in support of the search warrant, which he believes will provide insights into the basis on which Burke is being investigated.
Rasch also highlighted that multiple Justice Department officials — including the U.S. attorney general — are required to approve searches involving journalists or newsrooms, and details of whether investigators followed that procedure should be in the affidavit.
The government response to Rasch’s motion is due by Aug. 9, according to court records.