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Accused of stealing signals through a satellite TV antenna their lawyer says they never had, a New York couple is seeking permission to file a countersuit charging the satellite programming giant DirecTV with racketeering and extortion. “They have no evidence that my clients pirated a signal,” defense attorney Andrew J. Campanelli of Mineola said. Nevertheless, Gary and Loretta O’Hal are the named defendants in DirecTV Inc. v. O’Hal, No. CV-04-325, an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. That suit is one of more than 100 anti-piracy actions filed by DirecTV against more than 400 Long Island, N.Y. defendants since May 2003, an attorney for the company said. Eleven of those actions, including the O’Hal matter, were filed at the U.S. Courthouse in Central Islip on a single day in January. DirecTV has filed more than 24,000 such suits nationwide in the past two years, a company spokesman said. Each of those suits are preceded by a two-page letter from DirecTV’s “End User Development Group,” accusing the recipient of possessing illegal satellite signal descrambling equipment. In order to avoid a lawsuit, the letter says, the recipient must agree to surrender the contraband to DirecTV and agree to pay an unspecified sum as damages. Finally, the recipient is told to call the company by a set deadline, or else. Campanelli, who said that his clients were asked to pay DirecTV $3,500, maintains that the letters and the lawsuits that follow, are part of a coercive pattern aimed not at curbing signal piracy, but at collecting money from people at a rate that makes it uneconomical to hire defense attorneys. Robert Mercer, the company’s director of public relations, said that few of the letters are sent out in error. “If they can convince us that they are innocent, we do release our claim. But the vast majority cannot do that,” he said. TRADING ALLEGATIONS DirecTV’s six-count complaint against the O’Hals alleges that they have bought and used illegal satellite signal decryption equipment to unscramble the company’s subscription-only programming, and have also trafficked in the unscrambling equipment, reselling the devices in interstate commerce. It specifically accuses them of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and federal wiretap laws codified as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Campanelli’s clients deny those charges. In his proposed counterclaim, Campanelli averred that the lawsuit and the demand letters that preceded it, amount to mail fraud, wire fraud and, cumulatively, a violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law. Campanelli is a partner with Perry & Campanelli. Representing DirecTV, attorney Mario Aieta contended that the proposed countersuit would be “futile.” An attorney in the New York office of Seattle-based Garvey Schubert Barer, Aieta added, “We feel the proposed amended pleading is simply unsound under controlling law.” Garvey Schubert is regional counsel for DirecTV. Aieta said that his client has filed anti-piracy suits in all four federal district courts in New York. BREAKING THE CODE As explained in the company’s complaint, DirecTV — the nation’s largest subscription satellite television service — encrypts its satellite transmission signals to provide security for and to prevent the unauthorized viewing of its television programming. Reception and decoding of those signals requires two pieces of equipment: One is the now-ubiquitous outdoor dish antenna. The other is a signal descrambling box that sits atop the subscriber’s television. Within that set-top box is a removable credit card-sized “smart” card containing a microchip. Embedded in that chip is the code needed to unscramble a DirecTV signal. A lawful satellite TV subscriber’s smart card would be encoded to descramble only those signals for which the subscriber has paid. The O’Hals are alleged to have purchased illegal smart card encoding equipment from a now-defunct signal piracy Web site, EQStuff.org. But there is some dispute as to which members of the O’Hal family are alleged to have done what. In January 2002, the EQStuff.org offices were raided by U.S. Marshalls executing writs of seizure, Aieta’s pleading said. Through that execution, DirecTV obtained “various business records evidencing an ongoing illegitimate enterprise, including purchase orders and other records.” Allegedly among those records was proof of a May 2001 charge for $281 on Loretta O’Hal’s American Express card. That card was said to have been used by the couple’s son, Gary O’Hal Jr., to buy four “boot loaders” and one “hobby pack.” That equipment, Aieta said, would enable its possessor, to rehabilitate damaged or deactivated smart cards and create new ones. Although billed to O’Hal’s address in Lynbrook, N.Y., those items were reportedly shipped to O’Hal Jr. at his part-time residence in Greensboro, N.C. It is undisputed that the younger O’Hal, a New York City firefighter, lives there at least some of the time. Acting on the information obtained by the marshalls, DirecTV sent demand letters addressed individually to Loretta O’Hal and Gary O’Hal in Lynbrook, without specifying if the senior or junior O’Hal was the intended recipient. According to Campanelli, prior counsel hired by the couple tried to resolve the issue with DirecTV, but could not forestall the lawsuit. “My clients are not what you would call computer savvy,” Campanelli said. He added that not only do they not have satellite television service, but also they have had uninterrupted cable TV service for 20 years. “When they got the letters, they thought it was a joke,” Campanelli said. When he raised that issue with DirecTV’s lawyers, Campanelli said, their written rejoinder was that they had not meant to sue Gary O’Hal Sr., but Gary O’Hal Jr. Of the apparent confusion, Campanelli said, “If the son’s name was ‘Barry’ O’Hal, we would not have this problem.” Campanelli said that he is not representing the younger O’Hal. Asked why he has not simply moved for dismissal if the parties are incorrect, Campanelli answered that between his fees, and those his clients incurred with their first counsel, his clients have already spent more than $8,000 on this matter, which he intends to recoup on the counterclaim. In a telephone interview, Aieta responded that there was no confusion as to who was the intended defendant. The suit was directed against the person whose charge card was allegedly used to make the purchase and the person who allegedly received the encoding devices, he explained. “I don’t believe Mr. Campanelli’s clients are the slightest bit confused as to who those people are.” The case has been assigned to Judge Leonard D. Wexler. The request for leave to amend is pending before Magistrate Judge William D. Wall.

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