More than a dozen criminal charges have been filed against Prenda Law lawyers, who are accused of using porno movies to extort millions of dollars from victims.
Attorneys Paul Hansmeier and John Steele have each been charged in a US federal indictment with ten counts of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, and one count each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit perjury and suborn perjury, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Handmeier, 35, of Minnesota, and Steele, 45, of Florida, were two of the lawyers behind the notorious Prenda Law firm, which dragged people through the courts for downloading and sharing grumble flicks online. The marks would be accused of infringing copyright and pressured into coughing up cash to make the lawsuits go away.
According to US prosecutors, Prenda Law was in fact an illegal shakedown operation that planted its own raunchy films on download sites with the aim of extorting money from people who viewed their X-rated movies.
The US Department of Justice said that the attorneys either purchased the rights to or recorded their own smut scenes and then deliberately seeded them to download sites such as the Pirate Bay with the intent of having the movies downloaded.
After that, the legal eagles allegedly created a sham "hacking" case in which they recruited people who pretended to be some hackers who obtained and leaked the porno movies online. That allowed the Prenda team to convince a court to subpoena ISPs to get the identities of people who downloaded the files as part of the discovery process while prosecuting the stooge hackers.
From there, the DoJ says, Prenda used the information to contact netizens and, with the threat of lawsuits and public embarrassment, strong-arm them into paying out-of-court settlements for copyright infringement. The caper netted the gang around $6m between 2011 and 2014.
"The conduct of these defendants was outrageous – they used deceptive lawsuits and unsuspecting judges to extort millions from vulnerable defendants," said US attorney Andrew Luger on Friday.
"Our courts are halls of justice where fairness and the rule of law triumph, and my office will use every available resource to stop corrupt lawyers from abusing our system of justice."
This is not the first time Prenda Law and its attorneys have been hit with legal action for their shady copyright scheme. In 2013 the group was hit with six-figure damages bill for its action, and subsequent costs and penalties forced Hansmeier to sell off his assets last year. He was stripped of his license to practice law in Minnesota earlier this year.
Needless to say, this latest shot from the government could prove hard to swallow for Prenda's former ringleaders. ®