Despite what its name implies, Exel Transportation Services does not actually transport anything. It's what's called an intermodal marketing company; basically, it helps other companies ship things. Not the sexiest business to be in, but lucrative enough to convince Exel CEO Michael Musacchio to jump ship in 2004 after a dozen years with the company and, after the expiration of his non-compete agreement, launch a competing firm.
But Musacchio, a 61-year-old from Plano, wasn't content merely to compete with his former company. He wanted to crush it. To that end, he poached some key employees from Exel, including a vice president, Joseph Roy Brown, and John Michael Kelly, a key figure in the company's IT department, for the new firm, Total Transportation Services. Together, they settled on a surefire way to gain a competitive edge: illegally reading through Exel executives' email.
Musacchio would have been wise to remember that digital footprints are all but impossible to erase. Either through ignorance or hubris, he did not, which is how the federal indictment charging him with hacking into protected computers came to be sprinkled so liberally with quotes from conversations with his loyalists as they trolled through the email accounts of their competitors.
And so, when Brown would forward a particularly juicy bit of information -- an upcoming budget, maybe, or news that Exel was the target of a potential takeover -- we know that Musacchio would respond with words of encouragement like "you are the Man!" and "You are on fire! Take a look at Toad's email and see if he is sucking up to Jim!"
The men, in their emails with each other, took absolutely no pains to conceal what they were up to.
Musacchio: [T]he question is, how are we going to get into email after you leave?
Brown: Not a problem....I have the back door password that only I know and no one else can change.
Nor were they content with merely reading their competitors' email.
Musacchio: Isn't there a way (when the time is right for us to write and email as Brad to Jim and really make some bogus shit up for them to get excited about?
Brown: Yes and it sounds like fun....that would really [expletive deleted] -- (Editor's note: federal prosecutors apparently take issue with the word "fuck") -- with their heads!
For more than a year and a half, Total Transportation Services enjoyed unfettered access to Exel's emails, though later on, there were a couple of scares. On Thanksgiving Day in 2005, Musacchio was mildly panicked to discover he had lost access.
Musacchio: When you get a chance, try to get into ETS's Webmail. Everything was fine last night, but tonight I get an error message that says 'Failed to Connect to Mail Server.' I didn't do anything that would lock me out. Maybe the server is down.
Brown: Looks like the server is down.......guess we will have to wait until someone figures that out.
Musaccio: ok thanks.
Brown: It's working now.....I restarted it remotely....I guess they have not changed a single password!
Then, on January 7:
Musacchio: Do you think we are locked out forever??
Brown (to Kelly): Hey my back door to you know where is locked out. Do you know another way in?
Kelly responded with a handful of administrative passwords, which did the trick.
Inevitably, Exel began to suspect that something was up. At first, according to messages the men intercepted from the company's lawyer, they thought their phones had been compromised. Predicting, correctly, that their suspicions would soon turn to email, Musacchio advised Brown and Kelly to delete all compromising emails.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"We cannot do anything unwise at the time," he wrote.
That advice came about a year and a half too late. On March 24, Brown emailed Musacchio. "It appears my fishing hole has dried up...no more fishing," he wrote. It took another four years, but the three men were eventually indicted.
Both Brown and Kelly pleaded guilty to their role in the hacking conspiracy, while Musacchio opted to go to trial. A federal jury convicted him in March. On Thursday, he was sentenced to 63 months in prison.
A decision on how much restitution he will be forced to pay is pending.