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Ex-Goldman Sachs employee says she felt ‘violated’ during faked YouTube exec call

The witness described what it was like to be on the receiving end of a call in which an Ozy Media leader impersonated a YouTube executive using a voice modifier.

BROOKLYN (CN) — When she hopped on a call with whom she thought was YouTube executive Alex Piper, former Goldman Sachs employee Allison Berardo felt “violated,” she told a Brooklyn federal courtroom on Thursday.

Berardo testified during Ozy Media’s fraud trial that she scheduled a call with Piper in 2021 to discuss YouTube’s business relationships with the now-defunct digital media startup after spending months negotiating a deal with the company. But once she got on the call, Berardo said she knew it wasn’t Piper — mainly because of what seemed to be voice modification software that produced a strange and robotic speaking voice.

“I instantly heard a voice that didn’t sound like a human’s voice,” Berardo said Thursday. “Somebody was clearly using a voice modifier.”

That Goldman Sachs call, which became infamous in media circles after it was reported by The New York Times in 2021, is at the center of the federal government’s case against Ozy, in which prosecutors say co-founders Carlos Watson and Samir Rao conspired to impersonate Piper to try and secure an investment from the global bank.

Watson, a Harvard graduate who earned a law degree from Stanford University, is facing criminal charges of securities and wire fraud conspiracies and aggravated identity theft for accusations he deceived investors and conspired to impersonate leaders of other media groups in furtherance of the scheme.

Rao, former chief operating officer, and Suzee Han, onetime chief of staff, each pleaded guilty to charges last year and are now cooperating with the government. The pair were also named alongside Watson in a separate lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

On Thursday, Berardo said Goldman Sachs first took an interest in Ozy Media because the initial revenue numbers the company provided showed it was capable of growth.

“It demonstrated the company was of a certain scale and able to grow over the years,” she said.

But Berardo said she became concerned about Ozy’s long term customer relationships. The information Watson and Rao provided did not seem to show that the media company had enough recurring customers.

After she expressed those concerns, prosecutors say, Watson made up a story: YouTube was interested in buying the rights to Ozy’s flagship program, “The Carlos Watson Show,” in which Watson interviewed politicians and pop culture celebrities including Joe Biden and John Legend.

Seeking to verify that relationship, Berardo said she requested to speak with a YouTube executive to learn more about what it’s like to work with Ozy. Rao then introduced Berardo to Piper, then-head of unscripted content at YouTube, over an email chain.

But, as Rao said during his own testimony, the email he provided was fake and he'd been on the other end the entire time.

On Goldman's side of the call, Berardo was joined by her boss, Hillel Moerman — but she didn’t tell Piper Moerman was present, she testified.

In texts between the two shown in court, Berardo and Moerman tried to figure out if they were indeed speaking to Piper.

“It sounds like he has a voice thing on,” one text from Berardo said.

“Do you think it could be Carlos?” Berardo asked in another text.

Berardo added that the two initially thought they were talking to Watson because they picked up on familiar mannerisms. For instance, Berardo said Watson tended to repeat the name of the person he was talking to — just like the fake Piper was doing on the call.

“He just said my name again,” another text from Berardo said.

Berardo then suggested Moerman, who hadn't yet been introduced on the call, ask a question. She thought the sudden interruption would rattle whomever was on the other side of the call, she explained during Thursday's testimony.

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“Hillel, is that you?” Berardo recalled the person on the other end of the call saying.

Since Piper and Moerman had never met before, Berardo said this confirmed for her that the caller was not who he said he was.

“This is so fucked up,” Berardo said in a text to Moerman following her experiment.

After months of working on the deal, including giving up dinners with her family, Berardo said she was angry to find out she was being lied to.

“I went on a major man hunt to find the real Alex Piper. I was so mad,” Berardo testified. “It was all a lie.”

According to messages shown in court, after speaking with the real Piper, Berardo told Moerman that Ozy had lied about its professional involvement with YouTube.

“Ozy has pitched to them many times and they have never engaged,” Berardo said in one text message to Moerman.

But Harvard professor Ronald S. Sullivan, Watson’s attorney, focused during cross-examination on a specific text message Berardo sent to Moerman.

“No white man has a voice like this,” Berardo said in the text during the call with the fake Piper. “The closest is the Allstate guy.”

“You can’t say 'no white man has a voice like this,'” said Sullivan, who pressed Berardo on what a white man or the “Allstate guy” sounded like.

But U.S. District Judge Eric R. Komitee sustained his own objection against Sullivan’s focus on that text, drawing murmurs from members of Watson’s family sitting in the gallery.

“Wow,” one relative said under their breath. Another repeatedly murmured “Jesus” and shook their head during Komitee’s objections.

As Sullivan continued to try and ask other questions about the “white man” text, Komitee continued to sustain his own objections until Sullivan moved on.

“If it’s on the same line of questioning, I’m going to sustain the objection,” Komitee said.

Piper — the YouTube executive who was impersonated during the call — also took the stand at the tail-end of the day.

He said he first took a meeting with Ozy Media, and met Watson, in 2020. Though Watson didn’t pitch him at the time, he later received an email with his pitch for “The Carlos Watson Show.”

But after looking at the pitch deck, Piper said he wasn’t interested. “What Carlos was pitching here was basically a talk show, a chat show,” he said.

He added that YouTube typically doesn’t buy talk shows and referred to them as a “MOP,” or most often pitched.

“We had no business with them through YouTube originals,” Piper said.

But a few months later, he said, he received an email from Goldman Sachs asking him to follow up on a call regarding his professional relationship with Ozy. “Obviously I was upset,” Piper said. “I was not on the call.”

He added that the first person he spoke to at Ozy was Rao.

“I let him have it. I tried to start off calm, I asked him what the hell happened that morning,” Piper said. “The fact he was deflecting and scuffling added to my anger.”

Piper then called Watson, who told him he was unavailable because he was traveling. During a second call, Piper testified, Watson said he would get to the bottom of it and asked Piper to not talk to anyone about the incident.

“It wasn’t a very long conversation," Piper said. "In my opinion, he sounded like someone who was trying to get me to keep this between the two of us.”

After Watson supposedly did some digging, Piper said he told him he would have to fire Rao. While Rao was placed on a probationary period, according to his testimony, he never officially stopped working for Ozy following the call.

Piper will resume his testimony on cross-examination Friday.

Watson was arrested last year at the Hotel NH Collection in Manhattan. If convicted, he could face up to 37 years in prison.

Follow @NikaSchoonover
Categories / Criminal, Entertainment, Media, Technology

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