A Houston man pleaded guilty in a scheme to defraud the Australian government of $317 million by selling millions of N95 masks he never possessed, federal authorities said Tuesday.
Arael Doolittle, 56, struck a deal to sell 50 million N95 masks made by 3M to Australian officials, “but authorities disrupted the transaction before it was complete,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Texas.
Authorities said Doolittle "actually did not possess" the millions of masks he told Australian officials he would provide.
Doolittle, who is in custody, faces up to five years in federal prison, officials said, and a possible $250,000 fine. His attorney, Kevin McGuire Cobb, declined comment Wednesday.
The Secret Service conducted the investigation, officials said. Doolittle’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Doolittle's alleged co-conspirator in the scheme was Paschal Ngozi Eleanya, then 46, also from Houston, according to federal officials.
Doolittle and Eleanya negotiated with the Australian government to reach a sales price that was five times what 3M lists the masks for, prosecutors said in a November statement.
“Based on their representations, the foreign government allegedly wired the funds to complete the purchase,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick said in the November statement. The statement noted authorities broke up the transaction.
Eleanya is charged with conspiracy and wire fraud.
Eleanya's lawyer, Ali Fazel, said Wednesday the case is ongoing.
"My client still says he is innocent," Fazel said. "My client was an intermediary at best."