FBI arrest Italian publishing exec for manuscript theft scam

A mystery that has shaken the literary world for years -- the theft of hundreds of unpublished manuscripts from distinguished authors -- may finally be about to be solved.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's last work, "The Testaments" was targeted by the scam artist. Photo: Jeremy Chan / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

In New York this week, the FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian employee of major publisher Simon & Schuster.  He is accused of impersonating literary agents and publishers over email to steal unpublished works from writers and their representatives.

The alleged scam had been known in literary circles for around five years with Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Sally Rooney among the novelists reportedly targeted. 

Bernardini was arraigned in court in Manhattan on Thursday after being arrested by agents at JFK airport the day before. He has been charged with committing wire fraud and identity theft between 2016 and 2021, crimes punishable by 22 years in prison.

“Filippo Bernardini allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer prize winner, send him prepublication manuscripts for his own benefit,” said US prosecutor Damian Williams.

“This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds,” he added in a statement.

Bernardini pleaded not guilty and was released under “home detention” with a $300,000 bond secured on his home, a spokesperson for the Southern District of New York told AFP.

Bernardini worked in London for Simon & Schuster, which said in a statement it was “shocked and horrified to learn of the allegations.”

“The employee has been suspended pending further information on the case,” the publisher said in a statement. “The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator,” it added.

Unknown motive
Prosecutors say the suspect’s modus operandi was well established. He would impersonate real people in the world of publishing by sending emails from fake accounts. The addresses would be made to resemble the domain names of legitimate publishers but with a letter changed here and there.

The indictment accuses him of registering more than 160 fraudulent domains.

What baffled alleged victims was that the thefts were never followed by demands for money, nor did the works ever seem to appear online or on the dark web.

In 2019, Atwood’s agent revealed that the manuscript for “The Testaments” had been targeted.

Last year, New York Magazine reported that the Swedish editors of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series had been approached by a purported colleague in Italy who requested an advance copy so that it could be translated before release.

A New York Times investigation at the end of 2020 found that “Normal People” author Rooney, “Atonement” author McEwan, and actor Ethan Hawke had also been targeted.

Little is known about Bernardini. Screenshots from a LinkedIn profile that was inaccessible Friday described him as a “rights coordinator” at Simon & Schuster.

The biography said he obtained a bachelors in Chinese Language in Milan and a masters in publishing from UCL in London owing to his “obsession for the written word and languages.”

One element of the story prosecutors hope to find out is what the accused’s motivations might have been as the indictment does not mention whether he made any financial profit from the alleged thefts.


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Italy remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

Italy commemorated the death of Italian judge Giovanni Falcone on Monday, thirty years after the brutal Capaci bombing.

Italy remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

The entire country paid tribute on Monday to anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, killed by the Sicilian mafia 30 years ago in a car bomb murder that shocked the country.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese laid a wreath at the memorial at the site of the blast at Capaci, near Palermo, that killed Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort on May 23rd 1992.

Another ceremony in Palermo was attended by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whose brother Piersanti, then Sicily’s regional president, was also murdered by the mafia.

In a statement, Prime Minister Mario Draghi hailed the legacy of Falcone, saying that thanks to his “courage, professionalism and determination, Italy has become a freer and fairer country”.

He said Falcone and his colleagues – one of whom, Paolo Borsellino, was killed by Cosa Nostra two months later – “dealt decisive blows against the mafia”.

“Their heroism had rooted anti-mafia values in society, in new generations, in republican institutions,” he added, saying the “relentless fight against organised crime and […] the search for truth” must continue.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogramme (1100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend. At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

READ ALSO: How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

On July 19th, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Falcone posed a real threat to Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by The Godfather trilogy, and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

He and Borsellino were later credited with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence for a groundbreaking ‘maxi-trial’ in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” anti-mafia prosecutor Marzia Sabella told AFP.