NEW YORK -- The News of the World phone-hacking scandal that exploded in England last summer with a spate of arrests, resignations and several ongoing investigations has remained mostly on that side of the Atlantic.
But that could change if Mark Lewis, the British lawyer who has represented several phone hacking victims in the U.K. and who recently teamed up with two Manhattan-based attorneys, decides to file suits stateside on behalf of clients who believe their phones were hacked while on U.S. soil.
On Thursday, Lewis, sitting alongside New York attorneys Norman Siegel and Steve Hyman, discussed the possibility of bringing hacking-related suits against Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in the U.S., the headquarters of a worldwide media juggernaut.
Lewis, who gained prominence for his pursuit of high-profile hacking cases across the pond, arrived in the U.S. for the Monday meeting with Siegel amid some media fanfare, including a New York Times profile. As a result of that meeting, Siegel said Thursday that there's "a reasonable basis for the proposition that three of [Lewis's] clients may have been victims of telephone hacking while they were in the United States." Lewis later confirmed he has a fourth client who may also opt to file suit in the U.S.
"It's inevitable that people in America would contact people in England and people in England would contact people in America," Lewis told reporters. "It's therefore the case that amongst the victims of the English phone hacking that there will be some, either American victims or people who are European who were in America at the time that they were hacked."
Siegel stressed that Thursday's meeting, which included roughly two-dozen reporters and several cameramen, was a press availability rather than a formal news conference -- an important distinction, given that the lawyers weren't willing to divulge several details of possible U.S. hacking suits. Indeed, Lewis declined to name his clients and Siegel said he wouldn't set any timeline for filing since such deadlines are "arbitrary" and only add "unnecessary stress and pressure."
Currently, the lawyers say they are investigating to determine which side of the Atlantic would be best for each of Lewis' four clients, one of whom is known to be a U.S. citizen, to pursue legal action. Lewis said important factors to consider include whether it's more convenient to pursue cases in a client's home country or if there's an advantage to filing in the U.S. in terms of obtaining evidence.
For instance, Lewis said that if it is deemed necessary to seek information from News Corp. deputy chief operating officer James Murdoch -- the one-time heir apparent who lost much of his clout in the fallout and has since moved from London to New York City -- it could make more sense to pursue cases in the United States.
So far, there have been no allegations of phone hacking against Murdoch's U.S. media outlets, such as the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
But since arriving this week, Lewis said he has heard unproven allegations "which raise issues against other [Murdoch] titles or perhaps against Fox News that raise suggestions, not necessarily about hacking, but about untoward dark arts to obtain information that should be private information."
Siegel said that he's received calls from six people with claims of hacking in just the past few days and suggested that more people will come forward as the investigation progresses.
"What you have to understand is that when this all started in England, this was one person with one case," Lewis said. "And you look at where it is now. So when it starts in America with three cases, it seems natural that you might find there are more than three."
A News Corp. spokesperson declined to comment on the lawyers' meeting with the press.
But surely the company is paying attention. Lewis has been one of the pivotal figures throughout the entire phone hacking saga, which has lasted nearly six years. He represented soccer executive Gordon Taylor in a 2007 civil suit against News International, the corporation's British newspaper arm, that resulted a record $1.1 million settlement and led to the further unraveling of News Corp's claims that phone hacking at the News of the World was done by only a rogue reporter and private investigator.
In pursuing the case against News International, Lewis ended up suing London's Metropolitan Police. In so doing, he obtained the "for Neville" email, a document revealing that hacking spread beyond the reporter, Clive Goodman, and the investigator, Glenn Mulcaire.
In 2009, the Guardian reported on the huge Taylor settlement, leading to more questions about what top News Corp. executives, including James Murdoch, knew about the scale of the hacking and coverup. Last summer, the Guardian broke the news that News of the World journalists had hacked the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, a revelation that sparked a national outcry. Lewis won several million dollars for the Dowler family.
So far, police have questioned over two-dozen past and present News International employees. The phone hacking scandal, along with subsequent probes into police bribery and computer hacking, has led to the arrests of 43 people, according to the AP. The investigations have also ensnared Murdoch's daily Sun tabloid and his more upmarket Times of London.
On Wednesday, Keir Starmer, who serves as Britain's chief prosecutor, said criminal charges are being considered against 11 people. The group, the AP reported, includes "four journalists, one police officer and six other people." As criminal charges appear to be looming on the horizon, News Corp. continues to pay for the phone hacking scandal, which has already cost the company $379 million -- a figure that could rise to $1 billion following more settlements, according to The New York Times.
Given Lewis' success in the U.K., Murdoch watchers are looking closely to see if any suits develop in the U.S.
London-based media analyst Claire Enders told the Daily Beast last week that "Lewis launching these lawsuits in the U.S. brings the issue of phone hacking into News Corp.’s backyard, where they have the potential for significant embarrassment."
Lawsuits aside, the company is still dealing with other U.S. investigations stemming from the phone hacking scandal. Siegel and Hynam, who also represent family members of 9/11 victims, met with both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and members of the FBI, following an unverified report that the phones of 9/11 victims and their families may have been hacked by employees of News Of The World. There have also been allegations that reporters bribed British police, an act that could violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Siegel said that both the FBI and DOJ investigation are ongoing.
And back in the U.K., questions remain about who knew what and when. Both Rupert and James Murdoch will give evidence next week before the Leveson inquiry that will address phone hacking and wider media ethics issues.
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