August 05, 2014

#Pseudoskeptic #BrianDunning gets himself 15 months, boo-hoos

Brian Dunning
Brian Dunning, one of the godfathers of conflating political libertarianism with scientific skepticism, and also con artist extraordinaire (the federal legal term is "guilty of wire fraud") found out yesterday what his near-term future holds.

(Update, Oct. 21, 2015: Dunning is out of the federal clink and unrepentant; he gets his first post-incarceration smackdown from me.)

 Fifteen months in the stir. Three years supervised release after that, a supervised release that will likely include monitoring of his online activities.

I suppose there's fanboys and fangirls of his that still, after not just his plea but now his sentencing, who think he's not a criminal. (One of the biggest of his early defenders, Doubtful News, has yet to post anything about Dunning's sentence. at almost a week and counting, even with Dunning posting a statement himself; see below for more on Dunning's statement.) However, United States Attorney David Callaway is not one of them.

In sentencing arguments, he fought for some significant incarceration time. Given the fact that this was on a plea deal with all other counts dismissed, he got at least half a loaf, I think. The defense wanted a "non-custodial sentence," in other words, a fine, no jail time, and, probably, about the same, maybe less, supervised time as in the post-release supervised time he actually got, based in part on cohort Shawn Hogan only getting five months.  Read below, if you will, before voting on the poll at right.

Callaway actually asked for 27 months. After saying that Hogan may have gotten lucky to get that short of sentence, he noted this about Dunning:
Finally, there are the letters. The government shares the discomfort U.S. Probation Officer Flores expressed at the recurring theme in so many of them, that the FBI "raid" allegedly "traumatized" the defendant's family, as if somehow the Dunning family deserved to be insulated from the adverse consequences caused by law enforcement agents simply doing their jobs, executing a search warrant to investigate the crimes that he, Brian Dunning, knowingly, willfully and fraudulently committed.
In other words, Dunning wasn't repentant. Maybe Hogan was, but we know Dunning wasn't. In fact, Callaway suggests that Hogan was more repentant, more cooperative and both, noting his "substantial and well-earned departure" from sentencing guidelines. Indeed, there's more in this in-depth piece about how eBay was "on" to Dunning and his cohort in crime, Shawn Hogan, which includesHogan "manning up" on responsibility, but Dunning being too much of a wuss or putz to comment.

Why does that not really surprise me, that Dunning either wasn't that repentant, that cooperative, or both? Especially since he knows that all about Hogan!

The suggested sentencing range, pre-hearing, of up to 27-33 months, was based on Dunning's fraud having an actual estimated value of $200,000-$400,000 per stipulation by all involved parties as part of his plea deal. Given that Kessler's Flying Circus, Dunning's front group, raked $5.3 million in eBay commissions in one 18-month period alone, that was a generous concession by the feds as part of the plea deal.

I posted a long blog at about the time he pled guilty, which includes that information and more. You can click the link for the whole thing, but I'll extract a few highlights, or lowlights, here.

That includes that, this spring, Lousy Canuck at Freethought Blogs reported Dunning was trying to use 501(c)3 status, allegedly started in 2012, to shield his ill-gotten gains.

Yours for just $15!
So, sell that swag, Brian!

(At highly inflated prices, like $27.95 for a T-shirt. Sounds like a guru selling to his cultic followers. Or $15 for the aptly titled rubber stamp; more on it below.)

Back to the serious on this part. I don't know how much he was selling on his own on eBay, or if any of his Skeptoid stuff was sold there. But, the principle of a man with a sharp eye for a sharp product, whether through "raking" with groupies on his own stuff or defrauding other affiliates with eBay, still stands.

And, yes, "groupies" is about the right word.

Have fun in the stir, Brian.

And, I hope you serve as a lesson not only to other Internet fraudsters, but people like you who fuse libertarianism and skepticism.

Hell, I hope you serve as a warning to people entranced with libertarianism in general, or even those who are too readily defensive of the neoliberal halfway house.

Your whole attitude reeks of supporting a libertarian Wild West. Lawyers and lawsuits are supposed to replace the rule of actual criminal law but, of course, only the rich can afford lawyers in Plato's Libertarian Republic.

Unfortunately, it will actually serve no such deterrence.

Shane Brady seems proof of that. (No surprise; I've run into his libertarianism before, and would argue that he has one foot down the road of Dunning, Penn & Teller, Shermer and others who in various ways conflate skepticism and libertarianism.)

Brady describes his background (his post just mentions "advertising") as such: I’ve been a programmer for as long as I can remember, and my interest in computers, the Internet, and technology runs deep. Elsewhere, in a comment on a non-public social media thread, he does indicate that he has IT experience relevant to this.

That said, let's jump in.

First, Shane in essence tries to say Dunning is no criminal. He gives a de jure admission that Dunning is one, while at the same time giving a de facto defense of Dunning as ... well as having been set up by some nefarious combo of eBay and the FBI.

Here's his narrative set-up:
The case also includes very little background of the industry and how it worked. There were two companies involved, eBay and Commission Junction. CJ’s job is to handle affiliate programs and, this is key, fraud prevention. You don’t become a top affiliate with the numbers Brian was pulling and not get noticed. Someone would be looking at you within the first week. ...

By far, though, the biggest red flag for me is the way eBay describes the investigation. Somehow an eBay employee was working with the FBI for a year to catch Brian. They even set up a “sting” to catch him in the act. What makes this all so perplexing to me, is that this should have taken all of an afternoon to figure out.  ...

Really, none of this makes all that much sense. Does this exonerate Brian? Nope. I will not say he is innocent. I can only say that what eBay alleges almost certainly didn’t happen, and I say that based on fifteen years working in the advertising industry. My personal opinion is that people in eBay and CJ knew what was happening, were being compensated well because of the program, and then let Brian take the fall later. In that case, I don’t know who committed the fraud against who. I don’t know how much Brian might have known. My guess is that eBay itself would be on the hook for defrauding other affiliate marketers if people within eBay conspired to jack one affiliate’s numbers up. This is complete conjecture on my part, but even so, it is more believable than eBay’s current claims.
If there were a twisted pun at the end, I'd call that a "shaggy dog."

But, there's not, so I'll call it ... a fictional short story? Counterfactual history?

In any case, noooo, it's not at all closer to being more believable.

In any case, while I'm plenty familiar with the FBI's history of entrapment, it also arrests real people for real crimes without any entrapment whatsoever.  Given the fact that Shawn Hogan also pled, and per what I and many other people who are not social justice warriors have seen about the original indictment documents, etc., I have no doubt that the FBI plus eBay had them both dead to rights. And, among the people included in that group, in italics, are multiple tech websites who have written about aspects of this case without seeing anything askew.

So, Shawn, sorry, but we'll file you in the semi-groupie category until I invent a new name. Especially because you seem to think you have secret insights that escaped all those other tech websites. (And, it's not like tech websites in general don't have bits of libertarian leanings.)

I can't call you a full groupie, though:

Brady does admit that Dunning continues to remain a psychologically slippery fish:
With all that, though, it’s time for Brian to come completely clean if he expects to ever have a future in skepticism. No talk about what his lawyers won’t let him say. No more vague statements. He will have to be more brutally honest with his audience and perhaps himself than he has ever been.
We're agreed there. And, without specifying what legal actions are involved, Brady also hints this, to be legal, "goes to character":
The whole eBay thing ended around the same time he started the Skeptoid podcast, and for most of Skeptoid’s existence, he’s been involved in some legal actions.
OTOH, isn't this part of at least certain strands of libertarianism? Objectivism and Straussian economics both even encourage lying for the "higher good" or whatever.  It's also funny that, as part of his post, Brady excoriates "progressives" for suddenly changing their tune over "big bad business," like this:
Another thing that has struck me is how so many progressives, who are normally skeptical of corporations, and who complain about the unfairness of the justice system, suddenly believe the words of a billion dollar corporation to the letter and praise the prosecutor as a beacon of skepticism. 
While noting that ... erm, eBay may have had a reason to lie, or at least shave the truth. Brady ignores that Dunning "became a business" with Skeptoid when the eBay shit started hitting the fan, and that he "became a business" by incorporating as Kessler's Flying Circus as an eBay affiliate.

Greed corrupts, and absolute greed corrupts absolutely.

And, Brady may be an even bigger bullshitter about this than Dunning.

Why don't we call you a groupie for libertarianism, rather than a groupie for Dunning? Or, even more, a groupie for his own self-alleged brilliance? (If Brady is truly seeing something that nobody, nobody else is seeing, and has that much expertise, why isn't he a multimillionaire by now?)

But, let's get back to Dunning. The "slippery fish" himself has posted on his own website. The first one-third sounds like it could have been "as told to Shane Brady." The rest of it sounds like he was lawyered up even more than in his "partial response" shortly after his indictment.

Some quick responses.

1. If his share was only 1/3 of $200-$400K, why did he and his lawyers agree to that stipulated amount in the plea deal? (Answers that FBI is always thugs not allowed.)
2. He never denies that he set up a nonprofit for a "shield," just that that doesn't work. Duh!
3. If he really regretted this "stain on his past," his lack of cooperation with the government, especially as compared to codefendant  Hogan, doesn't show that. In other words, he only regrets it as far as how it makes him look bad, not as far as what he actually did.
4. As for the family that has been "hurt" by the FBI, et al, would that include the Mrs. Brian Dunning getting 10 large a month from the widget rakings?

And, per a new post by Lousy Canuck, Dunning's more of a schmuck in other ways. He apparently added some Javascript to block text copying, and has blocked his website from being crawled for online indexing.

Anyway, I've provided Brady with multiple links off my original post, including a long story by Business Insider. I doubt it will change Brady's mind. And I know it won't get Dunning to be more honest, should he see any of this. But given that I posted that on another person's Facebook page, that's not my goal. My goal is to show people that Brady most likely just isn't right about his claims.

This all goes back to Dunning's original "partial explanation," linked on my long post about his plea deal. Dunning, pre-plea, kept claiming "eBay knew this, eBay encouraged that," etc. When the FBI said, "Got some documents?" well, of course Dunning had none. (And Hogan never made Dunning's claims in the first place.)

In short, as I continue to blog about this? I'm seeing Brady as sticking a toe in the waters of conspiracy thinking. Just a toe, but a toe, nonetheless.  And Shawn, this goes on much more? I'll do a post about exactly that. And, per my long post about Dunning's plea deal, one persistent commenter who never would show links to back up his claims show Brady's not alone.

That said, that's only one of the "unfortunates" associated with this case.

Also unfortunately, the site which first posted the PDF of the sentencing, to my knowledge, is an Atheism Pluser website, making Dunning a continuing voodoo doll in the ongoing war between Gnu Atheism (Plusism's godfather) and "scientific skepticism." I will agree in part, but not in full, with Brady's observations about them. I'll agree to the point he's not forwarding his own objectives.

And, they've got objectives, too.  No doubt about that. In fact, I'm probably going to be doing a post about SJWs infiltrating the world of baseball blogging this afternoon. Yes, really.

Anyway ...

All of this again illustrates why I usually don't use either "atheist" or "skeptic" to describe myself.  I will, around philosophers professional or amateur, to be precise, use "skeptic" in its proper philosophical sense, as a good Humean.

As for "scientific skepticism" or "movement skepticism," that's probably its biggest failing after failure to "police itself" over the Dunnings of the world when they fuse libertarianism and skepticism. It's got a quite narrow focus, overall; much of it isn't even necessarily about developing a broader critical thinking mindset beyond narrow areas like ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs, etc. Because, if it were about that, the libertarian-fusers would either apply the proper mindset and stop mixing in libertarianism, or else they'd get the boot. Beyond that, without any thought about, or wrestling with, skepticism as a philosophy, there's no real way to ground a methodology of what "scientific skepticism" is supposed to be. For example No. 1? Do you folks even know the difference between the Academic and Pyrrhonic schools of ancient Skepticism? The differences are big, and very important, as the likes of David Hume knew, unless you want to keep swimming in the same very small pond.

Which most of you probably do.

One final note for now. Along the lines of Doubtful News, SkepticBlog, where Dunning used to be a regular contributor, has also said bupkis about his fate. That said, Donald Prothero's been the only contributor who's actually contributed for more than 2 months. And, I wonder about the long-term future of that blog, connected with Skeptic magazine. Loxton's two midsummer posts are the only non-Prothero ones in the past five months. And the two of them are the only posters for this entire year.

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