If you want to do shady stuff on the Internet, cover your tracks. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Paul Combetta, whose careless mistake just added new fuel to the never-ending controversy over Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.
Combetta is an IT professional who helped manage Clinton’s private server and then invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify before a Congressional Oversight committee last week.
Ordinarily, this might have been enough to shield Combetta from accusations that he tampered with or destroyed evidence. But now Internet sleuths have unearthed a Reddit post that appears to represent Combetta asking for advice on how to hide the name of a “VERY VIP” in a batch of emails.
While this is unethical (and possibly illegal), turning to Reddit was not Combetta’s big mistake. Instead, he did something in the post that appears to have given him away. Here’s a screenshot of the post, and I’ve posted an arrow pointing out how Combetta tripped up:
His mistake was choosing that username “stonetear.” Unfortunately for Combetta, he had used that name elsewhere on the Internet, which provided amateur detectives with a trail of online breadcrumbs that appear to identify him.
As the Washington Post and others have pointed out, those clues include: archived records linking the name Combetta to a “stonetear” Gmail address; an Etsy account and a video game site where “stonetear” identifies as Paul Combetta; other “stonetear” Reddit points that correspond with Combetta’s personal biography (such as ties to Rhode Island).
To make a long story short, Combetta screwed up by recycling an online handle he had used before. It’s something all of us do. It’s human nature to use the same name, rather than invent a new handle for each Internet site we visit.
But it’s also a great way to get caught if you’re doing something illicit.
To be clear, the evidence that Combetta is “stonetear” is circumstantial, and it’s not clear if there is anything illegal about the Reddit request. But the optics sure don’t look good, and strongly suggest that Combetta turned to social media for advice about how to tamper with government records that should been preserved.
The Republican-led Oversight Committee in the House of Representatives says it is looking into the Reddit post. A lawyer for Combetta’s employer, Platte River Networks, has denied media requests for comment.