KIRO NEWSRADIO

Expedia to close Seattle offices for 3 days to up security after spy cam reports

Feb 16, 2024, 3:30 PM | Updated: 3:53 pm

Image: This image shows a suspect identified as Marcelo F. Vargas-Fernandez on the Expedia Group ca...

This image shows a suspect identified as Marcelo F. Vargas-Fernandez on the Expedia Group campus. (Image courtesy of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office)

(Image courtesy of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office)

Expedia Group Inc. is shutting down its Seattle headquarters over the Presidents Day weekend to implement additional security measures. The development comes after a former employee was charged earlier this month with installing spy cameras in two all-gender restrooms on the campus.

Recent coverage: We were left in the dark about bathroom spy cams, Expedia employees say

In an internal memo sent to employees Friday, the company said additional security sweeps of buildings did not reveal any more cameras, but the investigation is ongoing. An employee first alerted Expedia security about a suspicious device in two of the bathrooms on Dec. 4. At that time, “security supervisors made the decision not to take the devices because at the time they thought it was a music device or a battery backup for the soap dispensers,” according to a Seattle Police Department (SPD) report. The employee told detectives when he checked the following day, the devices had disappeared.

Members of the Expedia leadership team wrote they “started an internal investigation immediately, including checking all restrooms on campus to find any other potential devices. We reported the incident to the Seattle Police Department that week. We also engaged an external private investigation team that included surveillance, forensic and behavioral experts.”

The memo also states the company, “began using enhanced security measures while the investigation was ongoing, through the end of 2023 and into 2024. This included multiple bathroom checks per day.”

SPD report tells a different story

None of that information is outlined in the SPD report, filed as part of the charging documents against Marcelo Vargas-Fernandez, 42. Rather, the SPD probable cause statement indicates the investigation was opened nearly six weeks later — after the cameras were discovered again on Jan. 11 inside the same bathrooms. A detective seized the devices as evidence, and police were able to identify Vargas-Fernandez as a suspect through surveillance footage. Detectives arrested him Feb. 1. During a search of his Lynnwood apartment, they discovered at least 33 additional spy cameras and other equipment, according to court documents.

Detectives say the cameras were placed under sinks, specifically to “view the private use and genitalia of restroom users.” They have so far identified at least 10 victims, including both male and female Expedia employees. That number is expected to increase.

Expedia confirmed in a statement that Vargas-Fernandez was an employee at the time of the alleged incidents, but he is no longer with the company.

Additional security features

During the campus’ three-day closure, Expedia teams will install additional security enhancements. According to the internal memo, those include, “daily sweeps, multiple times a day, of all single occupancy restrooms, spaces such as fitness centers in Seattle and our larger offices.”

The company is also installing additional security cameras in public areas, and continues to work with SPD to improve and enhance both physical and online security. Expedia also says it will provide support, including counseling and victim assistance services, for employees based in Seattle.

The incident prompted a response from Expedia’s CEO Peter Kern, who wrote his own message to Seattle employees. It said in part, “I am sorry for any distress this has caused you and can only say that our teams are working tirelessly to make sure you all feel safe and secure on our campuses.”

“If you need some additional time to work remotely, you can do so,” Kern added.

Some employees reacted with shock after news of the SPD investigation broke earlier this week. Some remarked on a campus-wide Slack messaging channel that Expedia had not informed them throughout the months-long investigation and Vargas-Fernandez’s arrest.

One remarked on the group message, “This definitely feels like something that should have been communicated to (employees) rather than buried.”

Image: Internal Slack messages from Expedia's Seattle headquarters (Image provided to Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

Internal Slack messages from Expedia’s Seattle headquarters (Image provided to Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

Expedia leaders said they did not wish to compromise the ongoing police investigation. But after the information went public, leadership said, “We felt it necessary to share an update on this sensitive matter because it occurred on campus.”

More from Kate Stone: Ingraham High students arrested for trying to rob classmate at gunpoint

On Thursday, in what some business analysts called a “shock announcement” Kern confirmed he would be stepping down from his role, effective in May. Kern has been with Expedia since 2013, serving as the Chief Executive Officer for the past four years.

It’s unclear if the timing of Kern’s resignation is related to the incident at Seattle headquarters.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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