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Defendant in H*MAC defamation suit arrested in alleged fake news scheme

The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center

The subject of a defamation lawsuit filed by a Midtown Harrisburg business has been arrested in Delaware County in a bizarre case that involves allegedly impersonating professional journalists and sending racist emails in order to create a fake news narrative.

Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland last week announced the arrest of 25-year-old Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou, charging him with some 20 criminal counts, alleging that he assumed the identities of a “Good Morning America” producer and a New York Times reporter to obtain documents and that he falsified a government document to create racist email.

“Evidence shows that Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou will use any means to create his false narrative,” Copeland said during a press conference. “He will go to any length to do so, trading on the well-earned reputations of a national television producer and a print correspondent, forging government documents, paying to obtain statements from celebrities to create a story for his website and concocting a racially charged email.”

Locally, Hatziefstathiou is a principal defendant in a defamation suit filed in December by John Traynor, the former co-owner of the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (H*MAC), and his former company, Bartlett, Traynor & London LLC.

Hatziefstathiou runs Philadelphia-based YC News, which, in July 2018, published a story alleging criminal conduct at H*MAC, under the headline, “Harrisburg club under fire after women allege security helped men who drugged and raped them.”

That story followed an allegation by a woman who claimed that H*MAC staff failed to recognize her as a victim of date rape drugs and asked her to exit the bar, leaving her vulnerable to a subsequent sexual assault. Harrisburg police later cleared H*MAC of any responsibility in the case.

Following the woman’s allegations, several social media sites erupted in charges against H*MAC and some re-posted the YC News story. According to Traynor, the negative publicity led to substantial loss of business and was partly responsible for H*MAC declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy shortly afterwards.

In December, Traynor filed a civil lawsuit against Hatziefstathiou and more than a dozen others, claiming defamation and tortious interference of business relationships.

“We went after YC News, the people who wrote the stories and the people who posted them on social media,” Traynor said, when reached by phone. “At a certain point, you have to stand up.”

Since then, a Dauphin County judge has issued a default judgment against YC News and Hatziefstathiou, who did not respond to the lawsuit. Damages have not yet been awarded but Traynor said that, in all, he expects total damages against all the defendants to exceed $1 million, adding that he doubts he’ll ever see any payment.

“It was never about the money,” he said. “I never expect to be able to collect.”

In the Delaware County case, district attorney Copeland said that Hatziefstathiou allegedly constructed an elaborate fake news narrative to create content for his YC News website. These alleged measures, according to Copeland, included:

  • Posing as a “Good Morning America” producer and New York Times reporter using false emails to obtain documents relating to an unidentified “decade-long scheme” involving several “Delaware County agencies.”
  • Forging government documents to obtain a PennDOT specialty plate identifying him as being employed full-time by a news agency.
  • Falsifying a government document to create a racist email claiming to be from a supervisor in the Delaware County Adult Probation and Parole Office, leading several politicians to condemn the office based on the YC News report.
  • Tampering with a video purchased online that made it seem that YC News had interviewed actors Ice-T and Snoop Dogg and that they endorsed YC News efforts regarding a case from the Delaware County D.A.’s office.

According to Copeland, Hatziefstathiou created the racist email by allegedly doctoring a legitimate email he had received from the probation office because he was on probation for past violations including several counts of false reports to law enforcement and harassment.

“Creating an article full of lies, Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou attempted to destroy the reputation of hard-working people who come to this courthouse every day to serve their community,” Copeland said. “Hatziefstathiou chose to falsely attribute horrific, racial slurs to good, hard-working probation officers, exploiting the real pain that minorities face every day, all in an effort to create racial discord.”

In late May, Traynor and his two business partners sold H*MAC to a new ownership group for $6 million. That group, H*MAC Venue LLC, yesterday announced a series of changes and construction projects to the 34,000-square-foot entertainment, arts and restaurant venue.

Read related stories from WHYY and PhillyVoice.


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