Nigerian National Pleads Guilty To Involvement In Multi-Million Dollar Attorney Collection Scam
The United States Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that a Nigerian national charged in connection with a multi-national scheme that bilked more than $70 million from U.S. and Canadian lawyers pleaded guilty in federal court today in Harrisburg.
According to United States Attorney Peter J. Smith, Emmanuel Ekhator, 42, of Mississauga, Canada, and Benin City, Nigeria, pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud before United States Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson. Pursuant to a plea agreement with the government, Ekhator also acknowledged the government’s right to forfeit property in Canada and the contents of several bank accounts in Nigeria.
According to the information provided to the court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christy Fawcett during the guilty plea proceeding, Ekhator was part of a scam that targeted lawyers. Conspirators contacted U.S. and Canadian law firms by e-mail claiming to be individuals or businesses outside North America who were owed money by entities in the U.S. and asking for legal representation to collect the money. Often, the prospective “clients” said the monies owed came from a real estate transaction, tort claim, or divorce settlement.
Once the law firm agreed to represent the out-of-country “client”, the law firm would be contacted by the U.S. entity purportedly owing money with an offer to pay the “client” by check. The “client” would instruct the law firm to deposit the check in the law firm’s trust account, retain the law firm’s fee, and wire the remaining funds to accounts in Asia. The check that was then mailed to the law firm would be a counterfeit check, a fact that would be discovered only after funds from the law firm’s trust account had been wired to the Asian bank.
The counterfeit checks, which appeared to be drawn on legitimate accounts from well-established financial institutions, often included a telephone number for the financial institution. Lawyers attempting to determine the validity of the check would call the number only to reach another conspirator who would falsely verify the check. Ekhator’s co-defendant, Yvette Mathurin, has been charged with alleged involvement with this aspect of the conspiracy and is awaiting extradition from Canada.
As part of the plea agreement lawyers for Ekhator told the court that Ekhator’s involvement in the scheme makes him responsible for losses of more than $7 million and up to $20,000,000. Ekhator also admitted to being a leader in the sophisticated criminal enterprise.
Ekhator was arrested in Nigeria in August 2010, and extradited to the United States in August 2011.
In this particular case, the maximum penalty under the federal statute is 20 years’ imprisonment, a term of supervised release following imprisonment, and a fine. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Judge is also required to consider and weigh a number of factors, including the nature, circumstances and seriousness of the offense; the history and characteristics of the defendant; and the need to punish the defendant, protect the public and provide for the defendant’s educational, vocational and medical needs. For these reasons, the statutory maximum penalty for the offense is not an accurate indicator of the potential sentence for a specific defendant.
Sentencing is expected to occur in the spring.
This case is part of an on-going investigation of advance fee collection fraud schemes by a task force including the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Secret Service, the Toronto Police Services, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.