Notorious copyright troll and scammer John Steele of Prenda Law has been disbarred by the Illinois Supreme Court.
The decision is not surprising, given the law firm's long history of legally dubious efforts to extract money from people – something that culminated in Steele pleading guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering back in March – but it is a sign that the lawyer is finally getting his comeuppance.
Steele will no longer be allowed to practice law in the state, although that does leave many other states, were he could continue his immoral trade once he gets out of jail. Sentencing for his criminal acts is still pending, but Steele has already agreed not to appeal a jail sentence of five years or less.
Both Steele and his partner Paul Hansmeier were charged last year with ten counts of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit perjury and suborn perjury, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Hansmeier had his law license suspended indefinitely last year by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In that case, Prenda Law set up and ran a piracy honeypot where they seeded pornographic films on pirate sites that then pursued downloaders, threatening to publish their names in a lawsuit if they didn't cough up several thousand dollars. The two admitted to having made $6m out of the operation and were later told to give the money back.
The honeypot was just the latest twist on the same scam that Prenda Law has been running for at least five years. The pair's former company, Steele Hansmeier PLLC, became notorious in 2011 for spamming 10,000 legal complaints against the owners of IP addresses that it claimed had downloaded porn illegally. One of them, a grandmother in her 70s, said she had no idea what "BitTorrent" was.
Numerous other similar scams were carried out until the honeypot case finally brought things to a halt. And so they appealed the ruling, even asking for a new investigation to be carried out as a way of clearing their names.
One of the judges had some harsh words for them on that occasion in 2015. And the appeal was denied in June 2016, with the judge defending the district court and accusing Steele and Hansmeier of "contradicting themselves, evading questioning, and possibly committing identity theft and fraud on the courts."
He found, again, that Prenda Law had operated a "national trolling scheme" and carried out "abusive litigation" in response to it. ®