United States v. Abouammo

Decision Date12 December 2022
Docket Number19-cr-00621-EMC-1
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of California



EDWARD M. CHEN United States District Judge


On August 9, 2022, a jury found Defendant Ahmad Abouammo (Defendant) guilty of (1) acting as an agent of a foreign government without notice (Count One); (2) conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud (Count Two); (3) wire fraud and honest services fraud, or aiding and abetting the same, with respect to a July 9, 2015 Twitter direct message between Defendant's Twitter account and Bader Binasaker's (“Binasaker”) Twitter account (Count Five); (4) money laundering related to wire transfers from a bank account in Lebanon (Counts Nine and Ten); and (5) falsification of records (Count Eleven). See Docket No. 391 (“Verdict Form”). The jury found Defendant not guilty of five other counts of wire fraud and honest services fraud (Counts Three, Four, Six Seven, and Eight). Id.

Now pending is Defendant's motion for acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 and for a new trial under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33. See Mot. at 12, 36. Defendant argues the Court should enter a judgment of acquittal on all counts due to unconstitutional vagueness or insufficient evidence. See Mot. at 13-36. Defendant argues the Court should order a new trial because (1) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, (2) the Government suppressed Brady evidence, (3) newly discovered evidence would have changed the outcome of the trial, (4) cumulative prosecutorial misconduct substantially prejudiced Defendant's ability to try its case, and (5) the jury instructions contained various errors. See Mot. at 50-56. The Government opposes Defendant's motion in its entirety. See Docket No. 399 (“Opp.”).

A. Defendant's Role at Twitter

Defendant worked at Twitter from November 2013 to May 2015 as a Media Partnerships Manager (“MPM”) for the Middle East North Africa (“MENA”) region. Trial Transcript (“Trial Tr.”) 421:17-425:22 (Katie Stanton (“Stanton”)). Defendant's role was to expand use of Twitter throughout the MENA region. Id. Interaction with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”) was integral to his role, as 50% of MENA Twitter users are located in the KSA. Id. at 1008:121010:22 (Walker). Part of Defendant's job was to serve as a liaison for influential people in the region, including celebrities, community leaders, and government officials. Id. at 421:17-425:22; 449:8-454:11 (Stanton). As liaison, Defendant was expected to respond to partner requests for verification and complaints about abusive accounts and impersonation accounts. Id. 421:17425:22; 449:8-454:11. As an MPM, Defendant could not approve requests himself, he could only escalate requests that met Twitter requirements. Id. at 449:8-454:11.

To assess verification requirements and complaints, Twitter gave MPMs access to the “Profile Viewer” tool. Id. at 390:8-392:12 (Dr. Yoel Roth (“Dr. Roth”)). Profile Viewer allows employees to search specific Twitter users by username, or “handle,” and view a user's recent Twitter activity, email address, IP address, and phone number. Id. at 392:12-396:5. Twitter's policy, outlined in the Twitter Playbook and Security Handbook, places on each employee a responsibility to protect Twitter's proprietary information, such as that an employee could access using Profile Viewer. See Exs. 301, 303, 323, 327. Further, per the Security handbook, users' email addresses and telephone numbers, among other information, was considered nonpublic consumer information. Ex. 323. The Twitter Employee Communication Guidelines prohibits employees from sharing confidential information with non-Twitter employees-leaking such information is grounds for termination. Ex. 327. Twitter employees are also prohibited from accepting gifts valued at over $100. Ex. 325. Defendant affirmed his responsibility to protect user data when he was hired and when he left Twitter. Trial Tr. 372:12-381:19 (Dr. Roth).

B. Binasaker and the KSA

Bader Binasaker (“Binasaker”) was a close advisor of then-Crown Prince of KSA Salman bin Abdulaziz's (“Salman”) son Mohammed bin Salman (“MbS”). Trial Tr. 719:24-729:19 (Dr. Kristin Diwan (“Dr. Diwan”)). MbS became the Head of the Private Office of the Crown Prince in March 2013. Id. at 721:7-723:25. In January 2015, Salman became King of Saudi Arabia and appointed MbS as Minister of Defense and Head of his Royal Court. Id. at 702:17-703:1. Salman appointed MbS Deputy Crown Prince in April 2015. Id.

As MbS rose through the ranks, he brought along close associates, including Binasaker. Id. at 719:24-729:19. Binasaker was the General Supervisor of the Prince Salman Youth Center (“PSYC”). Id. at 748:7-749:13. In 2011, MbS created the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation (“MiSK”), naming Binasaker as its Secretary General. Id. at 753:15-755:12. According to the Government, “MbS established MiSK to expand KSA's knowledge economy through youth empowerment and to use social media to reflect well on the country as a whole.” Opp. at 11 (citing Trial Tr. 714:25-715:17 (Dr. Diwan)). UNESCO recognizes MiSK as a non-governmental organization (“NGO”). Trial Tr. 746:3-19 (Dr. Diwan). The Government argues control of social media, and Twitter in particular, was a central goal for MbS in light of Twitter's role in spurring the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011. See id. at 708:11-729:12. Citing testimony of Dr. Diwan, the Government explains “MiSK's work was [] closely intertwined with several KSA ministries”; [t]he Royal Family [] brought MiSK on their main diplomatic visits abroad”; and MiSK was viewed “as a main part of this new government agenda that was being run by MbS.” Id. at 714:25-718:25.

In addition to his role with MiSK, Binasaker was MbS's “right-hand-man.” Id. at 754:817. He advised MbS, managed MbS's personal finances, and traveled with MbS. Id. Binasaker also remained in his role as head of PSYC. Id. at 724:1-13. In February 2015, shortly after MbS became Minister of Defense, Binasaker registered the email domain bader.alasaker@hrhpmpo[.]com, which the Government argues was the official domain of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed's Private Office. See Ex. 699; Opp. at 14. In May 2015, Binasaker submitted an A-2 visa application, reserved for diplomatic and official travelers, and accompanied King Salman to Camp David. Trial Tr. 505:17-22 (Sarah Rogers (“Rogers”)); id. at 510:5-511:6; id. at 518:23-528:20; Ex. 203. On the application, Binasaker described himself as a “foreign official/employee,” listed his primary occupation as “government,” and his employer as “royal court.” Id. at 518:23-528:20 (Rogers). An A2 visa application must be coupled with a formal diplomatic note from the individual's sponsoring government requesting a visa for one of its officials. Id. at 522:9-13. The U.S. State Department listed the purpose of the trip as “Official Travel.” Id. at 520:1-25. Customs and Border Protection records confirm that Binasaker ultimately went on this trip, landing at Andrews Air Force Base on May 12, 2015. See Ex. 223; Trial Tr. 647:7-649:25 (Brian Pangelinan (“Pangelinan”).

C. Defendant and Binasaker

Defendant met Binasaker on June 13, 2014 when a group of Saudi entrepreneurs visited Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Trial Tr. 1322:7-1335:25 (Special Agent Letitia Wu (“SA Wu”)). On June 14, 2014, Defendant shared his phone number and Skype account with Binasaker. Id. In December 2014, Defendant and Binasaker met again at a Twitter meeting in London. Exs. 424, 427; Trial Tr. 1462:1-1463:2 (SA Wu). At the meeting, Binasaker gave Defendant a Hublot watch worth around $42,000. Trial Tr. 1307:1-11 (SA Wu). According to the Government, [Defendant] and Binasaker discussed the @multahidd account.. .a vocal and widely followed critic of the Saudi Royal Family and government.” Opp. at 4 (citing Exs. 466, 610). About one week after the London meeting, Twitter logs show that Defendant used the Profile Viewer tool to access the @mujtahidd account “and continued to do so over six more days in the following ten weeks.” See Exs. 342, 343.

On January 17, 2015, Binasaker emailed Defendant a dossier on @mujtahidd with the statement “as we discussed in london for Mujtahid file.” See Ex. 610. The file accused the account of “violating the KSA ‘Anti-Cyber Crime Law' by slandering and damaging the image of several people in the Royal Family, including Crown Prince Salman and MbS.” Id. In February 2015, Defendant used Profile Viewer to access "mujtahidd's telephone number and email address. See Exs. 343, 951. In addition to the @mujtahidd account, Binasaker emailed Defendant about a @HSANATT account in February 2015. See Exs. 447, 464. The @HSANATT account was suspended for impersonating a KSA government official. See Exs. 448, 464. After the suspension, Defendant used the Profile Viewer tool to access "HSANATT's email address. See Exs. 342, 448, 951. The Government, citing testimony of Dr. Roth, notes that email addresses and phone numbers can potentially be used to determine a person's identity. Opp. at 5 (citing Trial Tr. 386:11-388:4 (Dr. Roth)). There is no direct evidence that Defendant conveyed the information he accessed to Binasaker. Trial Tr. 1504:9-1505:2 (SA Wu). However, there is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence. Binasaker emailed Defendant about the @mujtahidd and @HSANATT accounts; Defendant subsequently accessed the @mujtahidd and @HSANATT accounts; Defendant admitted Binasaker placed pressure on him to access the accounts, and Defendant was...

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