SCRANTON — A city man awaits sentencing after pleading guilty Friday to hacking the personal and work emails of former Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton and selling them for $500.
Justin Bodnar, 29, faces up to five years in prison for the felony charge, but will likely see a lower sentence for accepting responsibility, according to the terms of his plea agreement accepted in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Scranton.
U.S. District Judge James Munley allowed Bodnar to remain free on bail pending sentencing.
Attorneys in the case have not publicly named Leighton as the victim of the hacking. The indictment handed up against Bodnar on Dec. 20, 2016, identified the victim as “T.L.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert O’Hara, the prosecutor in the case, said at Friday’s change of plea hearing that “T.L” was employed by the city of Wilkes-Barre and Bodnar had sold a DVD of emails to a third party.
The Times Leader spoke with that third party, Mark Robbins, who participated in a sting operation to nab Bodnar. Robbins confirmed that “T.L.” is Leighton.
Bodnar and his attorney, Brandon Reish, declined comment after the hearing.
At the start of the hearing, Munley ordered the courtroom cleared for an “off-the-record” discussion with the attorneys. When a reporter, who was the only person attending the public proceeding, attempted to identify himself and ask for an explanation, Munley yelled from the bench, “Get out!” The reporter was allowed to return to the courtroom two minutes later. When asked by the reporter if the judge would state why he cleared the courtroom, Munley said, “No,” and resumed the proceeding.
Bodnar, who said he is entering his senior year of college, stated that he voluntarily agreed to plead guilty and acknowledged that he understood he would lose the right to vote, to hold public office, to serve on a jury and possess a firearm with his felony conviction.
Had the case gone to trial, O’Hara said the prosecution would be able to show that Bodnar hacked the emails from June 13, 2013, and Dec. 25, 2013, and offered to sell a DVD containing the illegally obtained emails to a third party. Prior to the sale, Bodnar provided a DVD with approximately 92 emails to the third party. Bodnar later met with the third party and sold a DVD of emails for $500.
Robbins, a former area resident who operated the blog, “WB Truth,” previously spoke to the Times Leader about his role in the sting that occurred in January 2014 at the McDonald’s on the Sans Souci Parkway in Hanover Township.
Robbins, a critic of Leighton and his administration, said Bodnar, who had not identified himself, reached out to him because of his blog and offered to provide the emails. Robbins said he contacted Leighton and city and federal law enforcement and was told to stay in touch with the hacker.
Bodnar arranged for a dead drop of a DVD of emails that was retrieved under a railroad bridge in Wilkes-Barre by a friend of Robbins, former city resident Frank Sorick. The DVD was given to law enforcement, Robbins said.
Sting at McDonald’s
The FBI then set up a sting and outfitted Robbins with a recording device. The FBI also gave him $500 in cash and photocopied the bills for identification. At the arranged meeting place, Bodnar identified himself and said he was one of the juveniles featured in the “Kids for Cash” film.
The film released in 2014 told the story of juveniles incarcerated as part of the scandal involving former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. They are both serving lengthy federal prison sentences for corruption-related crimes.
Robbins said Bodnar told him he learned his hacking skills while detained as a juvenile.
Robbins said he paid Bodnar for the DVD and as they were leaving the McDonald’s, the FBI approached Bodnar and took him into custody.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.