HOUSTON — The former scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to hacking into the player database and email system of the Houston Astros in an unusual case of high-tech cheating involving two Major League Baseball clubs.
Christopher Correa pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer, access authorities said dated from 2013 to at least 2014. The 35-year-old Correa was the Cardinals’ director of baseball development until he was fired last summer, and he faces up to five years in prison on each charge when he is sentenced April 11.
"I accept responsibility in this case," Correa told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes. "I trespassed repeatedly."
"So you broke in their house," Hughes told Correa, referring to the Astros.
"It was stupid," replied Correa, who is free on $20,000 bond.
The FBI said Correa was able to gain access using a password similar to that used by a Cardinals employee who "had to turn over his Cardinals-owned laptop to Correa along with the laptop's password" when he was leaving for a job with the Astros in 2011. That employee is believed to be Jeff Luhnow, now the general manager of the Astros.
In a five-page charging document, prosecutors said Correa in 2013 improperly downloaded a file of the Astros' scouting list of every eligible player for that year's draft. They say he also improperly viewed notes of trade discussions as well as page that listed information such as potential bonus details, statistics and notes on recent performances and injuries by team prospects.
There was no immediate comment Friday from MLB or the Cardinals, whose chairman, Bill DeWitt Jr., had blamed the incident on "roguish behaviour."
Giles Kibbe, general counsel for the Astros, said it was a "difficult day for everyone in baseball" and that all the information in the case would be turned over to the baseball commissioner's office "to guide us through this."
He took issue with comments made by Correa when he told the judge he had found Cardinals' proprietary information in the Astros computer system.
"To be clear, no one at any time with the Cardinals, or anyone associated with Major League Baseball, has ever made any statement, contacted the Astros or raised any concern that anything in our database or in our network was Cardinals' proprietary information," Kibbe said.
The Justice Department said Correa illegally accessed information ahead of critical baseball events, such as on the morning of the 2013 amateur draft and before that summer's non-waiver trade deadline.
The Astros rely heavily on sabermetrics in their evaluation of players and have been open about the fact that they use a database called Ground Control to house proprietary information. In 2014, the Houston Chronicle had a detailed report on the database, noting the team even had a director of decision sciences and that everything from statistics to contract information to scouting reports were stored at a web address protected by a password.
After that story, prosecutors say, the Astros changed passwords, the website address and other security precautions involving Ground Control -- only to have Correa hack into the email system to obtain the new details and get right back into the database. Once inside the system, he viewed 118 pages of confidential information, including notes of trade discussions, player evaluations and a 2014 team draft board that had not yet been completed.
The data breach was first reported in June 2014 when Luhnow, the Astros GM and former Cardinals employee, said the team had been the victim of hackers. Some of the material was posted online.
Last July, the Cardinals fired Correa in what was believed to be the first known fallout from the scandal, though the team did not say why he was let go.
The Astros hired Luhnow as general manager in December 2011, and he has helped turn the team from a laughingstock into a contender. Luhnow was a key figure in the Cardinals' own database, called Redbird. At least one former Cardinals employee -- Sig Mejdal, a former NASA employee and analytics expert -- joined Luhnow in Houston.
Luhnow has not commented in detail about the case, though he has denied he used any of the Cardinals' intellectual property or information from Redbird to create Houston's database.
The Cardinals are among baseball's most successful franchises on and off the field. Only the New York Yankees have won more World Series titles than the 11 won by St. Louis, which is among the best-drawing teams in all of sports. The Astros and Cardinals were rivals in the National League Central Division until Houston moved to the American League in 2013.
The Cardinals retained the Dowd Bennett law firm to handle an internal inquiry several months before the 2015 disclosure that the FBI was investigating.