Albert Gonzalez, the hacker who masterminded the largest credit card heists in U.S. history, is asking a federal judge to throw out his earlier guilty pleas and lift his record-breaking 20-year prison sentence, on allegations that the government authorized his years-long crime spree.
Gonzalez, 29, admitted last year that he and accomplices hacked into TJX, Office Max, Dave & Busters, Heartland Payment Systems and other companies to steal more than 130 million credit and debit card numbers, in what the government deemed the biggest computer crime case ever prosecuted in the United States. He’s currently serving time at the Milan low-security federal prison in southeastern Michigan, with a release date in the year 2025.
The government has acknowledged that Gonzalez was a key undercover Secret Service informant at the time of the breaches. Now, in a March 24 habeas corpus petition filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, Gonzalez asserts that the Secret Service authorized him to commit the crimes.
“I still believe that I was acting on behalf of the United States Secret Service and that I was authorized and directed to engage in the conduct I committed as part of my assignment to gather intelligence and seek out international cyber criminals,” he wrote. “I now know and understand that I have been used as a scapegoat to cover someone’s mistakes.”
In his 25-page petition, he faults one of his attorneys for failing to prepare a “Public Authority” defense, by which someone who commits a crime argues that he did so with the approval of government authorities.
He says his attorneys never discussed a Public Authority defense with him. Had he known the option existed, he would never have pleaded guilty.
Habeas motions, known as 2255 motions, can be used by convicted prisoners to assert defective counsel or other jurisdictional and constitutional issues outside of a direct appeal. Gonzalez is acting as his own attorney in the petition.
Gonzalez became a confidential informant for the Secret Service when he was arrested in New York in 2003 after withdrawing cash from ATMs using stolen card numbers. While working closely with agents for more than four years to put other carders behind bars, he was simultaneously running a criminal enterprise he dubbed “Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” according to court documents.