LONDON — A former television producer here, Robert Moore, once loved working on comedies akin to “Candid Camera” or “Da Ali G Show” that conned the unsuspecting.
On one show, politicians were tricked into campaigning against a street drug called “cake,” which didn’t exist. On another program, men were fooled into auditioning for a “Survivor”-style show called “Lapdance Island,” supposedly set on an island inhabited by lap dancers.
It was a fun ride. But in 2006, Mr. Moore’s career fell apart and, in his early 40s, he found himself divorced, living with his parents, studying Buddhism and working as a gardener. Then he discovered another industry that valued a talent for subterfuge: He became an operative for corporate intelligence firms.
For several years, K2 Intelligence, an investigative firm based in New York, paid him to represent himself as a crusading documentary filmmaker and to spy on activists campaigning to ban the use of asbestos, the dangerous construction material. He secretly tape-recorded activists, monitored their strategy sessions and, presenting himself as a journalist, did work for the World Health Organization — all while on the payroll of the firm’s asbestos industry client.
Today, Mr. Moore and K2 Intelligence are the ones under scrutiny. After activists learned of his ties, they filed a lawsuit in London against him and the firm’s British affiliate, charging that their personal information had been illegally taken during the operation. Mr. Moore has been pilloried in press accounts of the episode as a duplicitous spy for hire. Public health advocates who embraced him as an ally feel betrayed.
“He said I had given him a purpose in his life,” said one of the activists, Laurie Kazan-Allen. “I bought it all. I bought the store.”
The corporate intelligence business has boomed into a billion-dollar industry that provides companies, lawyers and Wall Street firms with due diligence inquiries, “strategic” information and investigations into potential business partners as well as adversaries. K2 Intelligence, started in 2009 by Jules Kroll, a man regarded as the father of corporate intelligence, and one of his sons, Jeremy, is one of the industry’s best-known companies.
But of late, attention has focused on the unsavory tactics some firms use to gather information. Last year, it emerged that the producer Harvey Weinstein had hired four investigative firms, including K2 Intelligence, to dig up information about women who accused him of sexual misconduct. One of those companies, Black Cube, had an operative pose as a women’s rights advocate to try to win the confidence of one of his accusers.
Mr. Moore, who has denied any wrongdoing, insisted in recent interviews and in court papers that he had become a double agent not long after getting his assignment from K2 Intelligence and had secretly worked to help anti-asbestos advocates. His self-appointed mission: to expose the person he believed was behind the firm’s operation, a Kazakh oligarch with interests in asbestos mines in Kazakhstan and Russia.
“I took huge personal risks and put my security and my family’s security on the line,” said Mr. Moore, who has cropped hair and a long, narrow face. “I was utterly motivated by what I saw.”
The asbestos case poses a potential minefield for K2 Intelligence. Several private investigators said they would not have an operative assume a fake identity or work for an industry selling a product as dangerous as asbestos. Such ethical issues aside, having an operative publicly go rogue is not the best advertisement for an investigative firm.
In its filings in the London lawsuit, K2 Intelligence has also denied any wrongdoing and maintains that its asbestos-related investigation was legitimate and used reasonable measures.
“The matters and methods of investigative work undertaken by K2 Intelligence employees are assessed and evaluated regionally as appropriate,” the company said in a statement. “It is our practice to maintain the highest ethical standards at all times and to comply with the laws of the jurisdictions in which we operate.”
Citing the active litigation, K2 Intelligence declined to make executives available for interviews, and the company did not respond to written questions from The New York Times. A lawyer for the firm urged Mr. Moore not to speak with a Times reporter, an email shows.
“It would be in all our interests for you not to engage,” the lawyer, Dan Morrison, wrote in an email. “That is the approach that K2 will take and I hope you will agree that this is the correct approach.”
Mr. Moore’s curious life as a corporate operative started unexpectedly on a British beach in 2007 when he bumped into an old television acquaintance. The friend had since gone to work for Kroll Inc., a major corporate intelligence firm, and offered to make an introduction for him.
Two years earlier, Mr. Moore had lost his job as head of television comedy at a production company. After a career of orchestrating pranks, he had hit a creative wall. “I thought I had lost my way,” he said.
Mr. Moore eventually decided that being a private investigator would pay more than gardening. And over the next few years, he got sporadic assignments on due diligence and fraud investigations from Kroll, started in 1972 by the senior Mr. Kroll, who later sold it.
On some cases, Mr. Moore, who had dabbled in journalism before his comedy career, posed as a reporter. He also once disguised himself as a deliveryman with a large floral bouquet to get into a mansion owned by a Russian oligarch. Mr. Moore, who was eager to get back into television, saw cases as possible fodder for documentaries.
“I found the work fun,” he said. “I enjoyed the mischief.”
In late 2011, he also started working as a contractor for K2 Intelligence. And after a few small jobs, the firm’s top executive here, Matteo Bigazzi, offered him the biggest and best-paying assignment of his career as an operative.
According to Mr. Moore, Mr. Bigazzi told him that a new client, described to him as a “U.S. investor,” wanted to know if American plaintiffs’ lawyers handling asbestos cases were financing efforts by activists to ban the material. One of those lawyers was Ms. Kazan-Allen’s brother, Steven Kazan.
The firm’s client, Mr. Bigazzi said, suspected that American lawyers like Mr. Kazan were trying to drum up lawsuits by foreign workers. And he added that producers of the material believed that the type of asbestos still widely used in some developing countries — chrysotile, or so-called white asbestos — did not cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer tied to the material, if properly handled.
“He told me chrysotile was safe,” Mr. Moore said. “So if the law firms were doing this, I felt that it was a legitimate investigation.”
The initial targets of the inquiry, which was code-named Project Spring, were Ms. Kazan-Allen and an international coalition of activists she founded, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. And court papers show that Mr. Moore seized on the assignment with unbridled enthusiasm.
In one memo, he told Mr. Bigazzi that the best way to infiltrate the group without arousing suspicions would be to present himself as a documentary filmmaker eager to develop a series of films about dangerous industries, not just asbestos.
“The advantage of going into this world with a bigger agenda than simply asbestos is that it might make my entry seem less deliberate,” he wrote. He added that he planned to win Ms. Kazan-Allen’s confidence by engaging her in “the most genuine and heartfelt way possible.”
When Ms. Kazan-Allen met Mr. Moore, she found him, as most people do, bright, charming and energetic. She also glimpsed in him a future leader of efforts to expand national bans on asbestos use, particularly in developing areas such as Southeast Asia.
“He was very polite, incredibly engaging and completely believable,” Ms. Kazan-Allen, 70, said.
Mr. Moore had planned their encounter to mask his motives, according to court papers. He first befriended one of her associates, who introduced him to Ms. Kazan-Allen. Soon, he was sending her fawning notes thanking her for recommending books about the asbestos industry, the court papers show. He also mentioned that his sister was a top executive at the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“Once I’m completely up to speed I would very much like to start meeting other experts and campaigners,” he wrote Ms. Kazan-Allen in mid-2012.
Mr. Moore also asked her to arrange for him to attend an asbestos conference in Brussels. She agreed to do it, unaware that his real reason for going was to see if American lawyers like her brother were funding it, filings indicate.
When Mr. Moore reported back to Mr. Bigazzi, his supervisor at K2 Intelligence, that he had not seen financial involvement by American lawyers, he said, he was told that the client next wanted him to go to Thailand, where activists were pushing for an asbestos ban. It was around then, Mr. Moore said, that he began to question what he was doing.
Mr. Moore said he learned that independent groups viewed chrysotile as being as deadly as other varieties of asbestos. He also believed that activists were right to want it banned and started to wonder whether K2 Intelligence’s client was someone other than the “U.S. investor” that had been mentioned to him.
“I don’t see the work of an arch mastermind who is unreasonably using disingenuous statistics,” he wrote to Mr. Bigazzi in late 2012, court papers show. “I see the work of campaigners who have a good argument on their side.”
Mr. Moore acknowledges that he could have simply walked away. Instead, he decided to discuss his situation with fellow Buddhists. He said he had told them that if he quit, K2 Intelligence would simply replace him. But if he stayed he might be able to do something positive by exposing the asbestos industry.
“I was told that I could absolutely do this from a Buddhist perspective providing I didn’t cause harm to anyone,” he said.
Activists suing Mr. Moore say they believe he had a more prosaic motive — money. Court papers indicate that K2 Intelligence paid him about $100,000 annually, far more than he had made since losing his television job. Whatever the case, Mr. Moore said he soon began to deceive K2 Intelligence and its client.
Although he continued to secretly record activists, Mr. Moore insists that the reports he sent back to K2 Intelligence were filled with worthless information. And when Mr. Bigazzi assigned him to monitor the World Health Organization, he persuaded officials there to underwrite a short film he produced, “Victims of Chrysotile Asbestos.” It showed a worker in India stricken with lung cancer.
Anti-asbestos advocates believe Mr. Moore made the film to enhance his cover story as a journalist. But its director, Greg Atkins, said that was not the case. “He used to laugh about the concept of the industry paying him to screw the industry,” Mr. Atkins said.
In court filings, K2 Intelligence said its executive, Mr. Bigazzi, had become aware of the film only after Mr. Moore billed the firm for time he had spent working on it. And Mr. Bigazzi apparently was not amused by how asbestos was depicted.
Mr. Moore said that when he showed the K2 Intelligence official the film, he was told halfway through to turn it off. “He said he had seen enough,” Mr. Moore recalled.
Investigative firms usually keep client names secret. But Mr. Moore said he was told during a chance conversation in late 2013 that the client in the asbestos case was a little-known investment firm in Singapore, the Kusto Group.
Unsure whether it was true, Mr. Moore tried to ferret out more information. He said he had found nothing at first on Kusto’s website to connect the firm or its founder and chairman, a Kazakh businessman named Yerkin Tatishev, to asbestos. Rather, Mr. Moore said, he stumbled over a link in 2014 when K2 Intelligence assigned him to go back to Thailand.
He kept striking out initially when he asked officials of roofing tile companies there if they had heard of Kusto. Then he showed one local official photographs of executives from Kusto’s affiliate in Vietnam.
Mr. Moore said the official had recognized two of the executives from their work with a previous company and told him that “those are the guys who sold us asbestos from the oligarch.” The same official added that Mr. Tatishev had once visited a roofing tile company in Thailand to urge it to keep using asbestos, according to Mr. Moore.
Those leads weren’t conclusive. But Mr. Moore says he began to focus his efforts on understanding what part, if any, Kusto or Mr. Tatishev was playing in the asbestos industry. In one 2015 email, for instance, he suggested to an anti-asbestos activist that they start looking into Kusto and the role of Russian asbestos producers in blocking bans in Southeast Asia. And he contacted journalists and filmmakers about making a documentary with him about the asbestos trade.
He also met at a London restaurant with a director, Dan Reed, to discuss a film project based on his experience as a corporate operative. Mr. Moore envisioned the film as having a climactic scene in which he would out himself as a whistle-blower at an asbestos conference.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’ and thought there was an opportunity to expose it,” Mr. Reed said.
Mr. Moore said he started secretly recording his meetings with Mr. Bigazzi of K2 Intelligence. While in Vietnam for the firm, he also gave a speech to reporters titled “The Duty of Journalists to Protect the Public Health,” in which he urged them to investigate the role of Kazakhstan and Russia in asbestos use. One slide he showed had a photograph of Mr. Tatishev and bags of asbestos.
Mr. Moore said he had received an irate phone call afterward from Mr. Bigazzi, who had somehow learned about the talk. But Mr. Moore said he had defused the situation by telling Mr. Bigazzi that he had repeated the contentions of anti-asbestos advocates only to maintain his cover as a journalist.
The strain of his life appeared to be taking a toll on Mr. Moore, friends of his said. Bill Lawrence, an occupational safety expert who was helping him analyze asbestos export data, said that he called Mr. Moore at home. During the conversation, Mr. Lawrence overheard Mr. Moore’s companion express fear about their safety.
“This is getting too dangerous, Rob,” Mr. Lawrence said he had heard the woman say.
Mr. Moore’s life as an operative soon unraveled. In late 2015, Mr. Moore said, K2 Intelligence offered him another assignment, this time to get close to leaders of a major anticorruption group, Global Witness.
Global Witness was then working with the authorities in several countries investigating two major oil producers for suspected bribery. Mr. Moore said K2 Intelligence had wanted to find out on behalf of one of the companies what the group knew about those inquiries. But he took another approach.
In June 2016, he met with a co-founder of Global Witness, Simon Taylor, in a setting worthy of an espionage novel — a restaurant inside London’s bustling St. Pancras train station. Soon, Mr. Moore placed a book, “Agent Zigzag,” on the table between them. The book chronicles the real-life adventures of a famous British double agent against the Nazis.
Mr. Taylor recalled Mr. Moore saying words to the effect of: “If you know this story, this is what I want to do for you.” Mr. Moore proposed playing the part of a double agent, sharing that K2 Intelligence had also paid him to spy on anti-asbestos advocates, Mr. Taylor said.
Global Witness considered Mr. Moore’s proposal but decided it could not trust him, Mr. Taylor said. The group also urged him to alert activists such Ms. Kazan-Allen about his work. When Mr. Moore balked, Global Witness contacted a law firm. That firm then sued K2 Intelligence, Mr. Moore and Mr. Bigazzi in 2016 on behalf of several activists.
Mr. Moore said he felt that Global Witness had betrayed him and insists that he was close to telling activists the truth. But Mr. Taylor said it was not Mr. Moore’s role to set the timetable, adding that his reports to the intelligence firm’s client might have jeopardized the safety of activists.
“He is not in a position to play God,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Moore has struggled since the lawsuit. He said he had spent his life savings, over $375,000, on legal fees and was now represented by pro bono attorneys.
Mr. Moore said he understood why advocates like Ms. Kazan-Allen felt betrayed. He believes that they will come to see him differently if he has a chance to tell his story in court.
In its filings in London, K2 Intelligence said it had undertaken the asbestos inquiry on behalf of a trade group called the Chrysotile Cement Industry of Kazakhstan.
A spokesman for the Kusto Group, Michael Farrant, said the firm had never had any asbestos-related holdings. However, Kusto’s website notes that Mr. Tatishev, before starting Kusto, was a major player in the asbestos industry who revived the fortunes of two large asbestos mines, one in Kazakhstan and the other in Russia.
The Kazakh mine, Kostanai Minerals, is a member of the Chrysotile Cement Industry of Kazakhstan. “The town and its operations were on the brink of bankruptcy,” Kusto’s website states. “Something profound had to change.”
Mr. Tatishev declined through Mr. Farrant to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to written questions about his current interests in any entities involved with asbestos.
Efforts to settle the lawsuit are underway, though Mr. Moore said he had resisted doing so. Some activists have rejected his tale of intrigue as a product of his imagination. “How can you believe that anything he says is true?” Ms. Kazan-Allen said.
Others, while finding Mr. Moore’s tactics unacceptable, believe his intentions were genuine. “Every part of my bones tells me there is truth in what he is saying,” said Mr. Lawrence, the occupational safety expert.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moore said, he has gone back to developing prank comedy shows, though he is not sure what the future holds.
“Do I strike you as someone who knows how to plan?” he asked.
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