Documents Reveal Intimate Details Behind DHS's 2014 World Series Panty Raid
Last October, federal agents descended on a lingerie boutique in Kansas City to confiscate some underwear. Here's how that happened.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
"We'll obviously try and spin this...but the panty raid jokes will make it pretty hard."
The craziest story of the 2014 MLB postseason was not the previously hapless Kansas City Royals making a deep playoff run. It was a Department of Homeland Security undercover sting operation of a small Kansas City lingerie boutique, Birdies, for copyright infringement on the Royals logo. On October 21, 2014, agents masquerading as eager panty-buyers went to the store, ordered two pairs, and then showed their badges. In all, they confiscated 55 pairs of underwear. The store's owners told VICE Sports they saw a printed email in one of the officer's hands from Major League Baseball with a screenshot of the store's website.
Not long afterwards, I filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with various departments within the Department of Homeland Security about this raid. I had so many questions. Was it really Major League Baseball that brought this to the DHS's attention? Why a lingerie shop? What was MLB's involvement in this? What happened to the underwear? Was this raid worth it?
The results of this FOIA, which are just coming in now—thanks, Obama—answer some of these questions. They also reveal that this operation wasn't just the result of acting on a simple tip. It was an extensively planned police action motivated by an "eager" Assistant U.S. Attorney.
On October 16, five days before the raid, an anonymous ICE officer from the Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPRC)—in the documents released, names of officers were redacted; an appeal has been filed to release the names of the officers involved—wrote an email with the subject "Op Team Player - world series update," referring to Operation Team Player, ICE's partnership with U.S. professional sports leagues to intercept counterfeit goods, including tickets and merchandise.
The unnamed officer wrote, "They [the Kansas City office] are trying to get their numbers up and will accept any leads for controlled delivery in Kansas or Missouri, even if they do not meet the criteria because the AUSA Prosecutor is eager."
It is not clear what "the criteria" are or if Operation Team Player comes with a quota system in which officers must confiscate a certain amount of goods. (UPDATE: Shortly after publication, an ICE spokesman said there is no quota system, and "the numbers" refer to tracking of cases which lead to federal, state, or local intervention.) Either way, this email clearly shows the local ICE agents were getting pressure from above to seize more goods. By that point, their haul had been fairly meager: 313 t-shirts and 26 caps over the first three days, with one arrest.
A few hours prior to that email, an officer from the IPRC (perhaps the same one), wrote, "In appreciation of OP team Player, we look for leads that have a bit excitement more than just imports of suspected CF wearing apparel." Nothing says excitement like a pair of counterfeit panties.
In the same email, the officer wrote that the Kansas City office is "already working with the MLB in anticipation for the game on Tuesday 21 Oct 2014."
There are significant inconsistencies with ICE's official report on how they first heard about Birdies. According to a response to questions sent to Senator Tom Coburn's office, Kansas City agents claimed they heard of Birdies through a "radio advertisement." The officers then said they Googled the business and saw "pictures depicting what appeared to be an artist rendering of the stylistic 'KC', which had previously been determined to be a live trademark filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. MLB did not provide any information surrounding or prompt the inquiry at Birdies."
But Peregrine Honig, Birdies co-owner, said that's impossible. "I haven't paid for a radio ad in eight years." Nobody with the store had done radio interviews prior to the seizure, either. "We did not advertise at all," Honig stated unequivocally. She said they received a shipment in the mail, took photos, posted them on Facebook, and three or four days later, ICE showed up.
When asked how ICE could have possibly heard about it, she had only two theories. One was that a short blog in the Kansas City Star mentioned Birdies as a local retailer helping people catch Royals fever. The other: more than a few cops bought the lingerie for their wives and girlfriends (Honig knows they were cops because they were still in uniform when making the purchases). Perhaps, when the prosecutor put pressure on local agents to expand their search, they started asking around. (UPDATE: After publication, an ICE spokesman clarified that the agents heard a morning talk show discussing the panties. It was not a radio advertisement.)
In any event, once officers became aware of Birdies, they called to the shop to see if they had any underwear left, went down to the boutique shop, ordered two pairs, flashed their badges, confiscated the remaining pairs, tracked down the printer who gave the shop owners his business card, and raided his business, too. An email on ICE activity around the MLB playoffs summarized the haul, denoted with "**Panty Raid allegation**": 35 boy short underwear, 17 women thongs, 2 Men's boxers, and 1 men's underwear.
By the night of the 21st, local news outlets already began reporting on the raid, and the ICE PR people took notice. At 8:38 PM, an ICE Public Affairs Officer sent an email outlining the issue:
The "proposed response" was the same statement given to the Kansas City Star earlier broadly outlining ICE's activity during the World Series regarding counterfeit goods.
At 8:54 PM, in response to this email, an unnamed person gave the most perfect reply summing up this entire mess:
It sure will, [redacted]. It sure will.
It's clear from the emails that ICE saw this as a potential PR nightmare. On the same thread, at 9:57 PM, someone wrote, "We need MLB to step forward and throw some support for what we do. Let us get with our MLB contact and we'll be proactive as we can re: media." Someone with the title "Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations-ICE" replied, "Great idea. Let's move on it."
The next morning, someone else on the same thread exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the internet's interest in panty raids by writing, "So far it appears to have just localized press. Hopefully, it won't make it out of the local news bubble." The person also encouraged reaching out to MLB only as a precautionary measure, and that "I'd hate to pour any fuel on it." MLB representatives didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.
Later that day, the Resident in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Wichita forwarded an article about the panty raid. The recipients are redacted, but given the email text, it's clear he sent it to Homeland Security Investigations/ICE in Kansas City, with the caption:
"Man, you dudes are mean!!!"
Within the coming days, the story would be picked up by Fox News, NBC Sports, Yahoo, the Washington Post, VICE Sports, and almost every single conservative and libertarian blog/news outlet critical of big government infringing on small business owners.
Charges were not filed against Birdies. ICE also claimed to have seized 1,377 counterfeit items during the playoffs in Kansas City for a suggested retail price (MSRP) of $77,281. However, that amount includes 153 counterfeit World Series tickets. Using some very rough estimates, the face value of those tickets averaged about $250, which means approximately half of the total MSRP value of the seized goods came from counterfeit tickets.
This is to say, ICE spent an awful lot of time, energy, and resources seizing about $35,000 to $40,000 of counterfeit baseball t-shirts, hats, and, yes, panties. According to the documents released to me, they had at minimum three to four agents working on this during the playoffs, but actively sought game day volunteers, too, who would receive flex time and, perhaps, overtime. To benefit whom? MLB, of course. Specifically, the Kansas City Royals and their trademarked interlocking "K" and "C" logo.
As for Birdies, the underwear was never meant to be a huge profit driver; it was just to get people in the door. Honig estimates they perhaps made $40 off the underwear before the raid. Honig said their Facebook page got shut down two days later, which was their main method of advertising. Facebook told them it was shut down because the page was listed as a person, not a business, which Honig said was the only option when they created it many years ago. Birdie' created a new page, but lost their followers.
On the other hand, the raid's story was overwhelmingly positive press for the shop itself. "It made Republicans angry, it made Democrats angry, it made anarchists angry," Honig said.
Which brings me back to one of my original questions: was the panty raid worth it? One redacted ICE officer thought so:
The full set of released documents can be found below: