from the shit-gets-real dept
For many, many, many years, we’ve been covering the saga of Prenda Law — a legal operation set up to file tons of shakedown copyright infringement lawsuits in an effort to get as many people as possible to just pay up and settle. The scam got deeper and deeper the more you looked, including forged signatures, clear evidence that the main actors behind Prenda — John Steele and Paul Hansmeier — were uploading their own works as a honeypot, while pretending to represent clients that they themselves owned through various shell companies — which they denied owning. It went on and on and on. And on and on and on. Things really went sideways almost four years ago when Judge Otis Wright in California was the first judge to put much of this together, and called all of them to court, where everyone pleaded the fifth (yes, lawyers were pleading the fifth in a case they themselves brought). In response, Judge Wright referrred the case to law enforcement, leading many people to ask over the past four years how it was these guys weren’t in jail (and, in fact, they continued to file lawsuits, reprising the same scheme but with ADA shakedowns.
Court after court after court has slammed Prenda, and ordered Hansmeier and Steele (partner 3, Paul Duffy, died in the middle of all of this) to pay up lots of money. Of course, in response to that, there were further accusations of illegally hiding money, bogus trusts, a questionable bankruptcy claim and more. And, yet, they still were not in jail. Oh, and we didn’t even mention the various ethics investigations that recently suspended Hansmeier’s license.
Ken “Popehat” White — who as a former Assistant US Attorney and current criminal lawyer — has kept saying that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn. Back in May, White noted that it appeared that ofifcials were getting mighty close to filing charges against Hansmeier and Steele, based on some evidence he had seen, suggesting the investigation was wrapping up. And the wheels continued to turn… until earlier today when it was revealed that Steele and Hansmeier have both been indicted and arrested in connection with the Prenda scam.
You can read the indictment or Ken White’s excellent analysis of it. As White notes, the indictment is incredibly thorough. We’ve written about a number of indictments in the past in which law enforcement is fairly lax on details. This is not one of those cases. The overview gives a really good summary of everything:
Between 2011 and 2014, defendants Paul R. HANSMEIER and John L. STEELE orchestrated an elaborate scheme to fraudulently obtain millions of dollars in copyright lawsuit settlements by deceiving state and federal courts throughout the country. In order to carry out the scheme, the defendants used sham entities to obtain copyrights to pornographic movies–some of which they filmed themselves–and then uploaded those movies to file-sharing websites in order to lure people to download the movies. To learn the identities of the people caught in the trap they constructed, HANSMEIER and STEELE filed specious copyright infringement lawsuits and fraudulently procured permission from courts to send subpoenas to internet service providers for subscriber information associated with the IP addresses used to download their pornographic movies. After receiving this information, the defendants–through extortionate letters and phone calls–threatened the subscribers with enormous financial penalties and public embarrassment unless the subscribers agreed to pay a settlement, all the while concealing their collusion in the alleged copyright infringement. When courts restricted their ability to sue multiple individuals in the same lawsuit, the defendants shifted tactics. They filed lawsuits falsely alleging that computer systems purportedly belonging to their sham clients had been infiltrated by hackers, and then recruited ruse defendants against whom they brought these illusory “hacking” lawsuits. Finally, when courts became suspicious of the defendants’ tactics and motives, the defendants began a long process of lies and deceit designed to conceal the truth and deflect responsibility from themselves. In total, the defendants obtained approximately. $6,000,000 made possible by the fraudulent copyright lawsuits they peddled to courts throughout the country
I believe the $6 million number is new. But everything else in there we’ve covered in the past. The lawsuit names some people by initials only — but who are easily identifiable if you’ve been following the saga. M.L. is likely Mark Lutz the “paralegal” who was involved in many of these cases, and was a figurehead owner of some of the sham corporations. You may remember him from one of the earliest Prenda stories we had, where Lutz “appeared” in court as a “corporate representative” of one of Prenda’s “clients” and yet knew nothing at all about the company he was supposed “representing.” That story also involved an appearance by John Steele who claimed he was there just observing, but which the judge immediately became suspicious about.
P.H. is likely to be Peter Hansmeier, Paul’s brother, whose name has appeared at times in connection with the Prenda scam and had been described as the technology person tracking down who was downloading the files in question. The indictment also mentions P.D. who is obviously Paul Duffy, the official owner of Prenda Law, but who was always sort of the third wheel of the operation before dying just as all the mess was unfolding. A.C. is clearly Alan Cooper, named here as “an acquaintance of Steele,” but who was a caretaker for some Steele properties, and whose signature Steele forged on documents pretending to own AF Holdings, one of the bogus shell companies he set up. B.G. is almost certain Brett Gibbs, a California lawyer who filed a bunch of Prenda lawsuits early on, but was one of the first to reveal details once judges started to catch on.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the indictment is it details multiple lies that Team Prenda told under penalty of perjury or under oath to various courts. It’s a pretty long and detailed list. It includes filings by Mark Lutz and Brett Gibbs, which the indictment claims were all done, under penalty of perjury, at the direction of Steele and Hansmeier — so they don’t even get off for trying to keep their names off these documents.
Based on all this, they’re facing a bunch of charges, for mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering (involving the transactions to hide money from courts) and conspiracy to commit and suborn perjury.
As White rightly reminds us, an indictment is just a bunch of allegations, not yet proven, but having followed Team Prenda and all these actions for many years, the feds seem to have clearly figured out what was going on, and appear to have the evidence to back up many of those claims. Things don’t look good for Steele and Hansmeier. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, US Attorney Andrew Luger called a press conference to announce all of this and call out the actions of Steele and Hansmeier.
“The defendants in this case are charged with devising a scheme that casts doubt on the integrity of our profession,” Luger said in prepared remarks. “The conduct of these defendants was outrageous ? they used deceptive lawsuits and unsuspecting judges to extort millions from vulnerable defendants. 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.”
Turns out that when you abuse the judicial system to shake people down… people aren’t going to be too happy about that. Of course, now we have to wonder if the other giant copyright troll, Malibu Media, may be facing similar issues going forward…