Attorney who oversaw porn film fraud scheme sentenced to five years

John Steele, 48, who had pled guilty to a litany of charges more than two years ago, was also ordered to pay restitution of more than $1.5 million.

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By Cyrus Farivar

A federal judge in Minnesota sentenced a now-disbarred Florida lawyer to 60 months in prison Tuesday, capping a bizarre yearslong saga that prosecutors say constituted a “multimillion-dollar fraud scheme” involving adult movies, online file-sharing websites, fake offshore shell companies and extortion.

John Steele, 48, who had pled guilty to a litany of charges more than two years ago, was also ordered to pay restitution of more than $1.5 million. Steele operated a firm known as Prenda Law with another attorney, Paul Hansmeier, who was his co-defendant, and a third lawyer, Paul Duffy, who died in 2015.

Hansmeier was sentenced to 14 years in prison last month and was ordered to pay a similar amount in restitution. The law firm’s offenses first came to light in 2012 and 2013 but took a notable turn in May 2013, when a federal judge in Los Angeles called Prenda Law a “porno-trolling collective” and referred the people behind it to prosecutors and the IRS for further investigation.

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John Steele in 2010.Chicago Tribune, MCT via Getty Images file

By 2016, Steele and Hansmeier were indicted on multiple counts of fraud. Prosecutors accused Prenda Law of using “sham entities” to obtain copyrights to porn films — some of which they filmed themselves. The men uploaded those movies to numerous file-sharing websites, including The Pirate Bay, a popular website for sharing links to unauthorized copies of music and movies, where they hoped some people would download them.

When that happened, Prenda Law would sue, claiming copyright infringement, but did not disclose its own role in distributing the movies.

Then, the firm would subpoena internet service providers to obtain the information of alleged users who downloaded those films and offer a $3,000 settlement from “individuals who were unaware of the defendants’ role in uploading the movie, and often were either too embarrassed or could not afford to defend themselves.”

Prenda Law, which ran from 2011 through 2014, was lucrative — prosecutors said the men made around $3 million as a result of their ruse.

While both Steele and Hansmeier admitted their crimes, prosecutors said in an earlier court filing that the former had provided authorities with a “truthful and complete rendition of his misconduct,” while the latter had not.

“Amongst other things, Mr. Steele misled federal judges and wronged the justice system,” Steele’s attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, wrote in a February 2019 filing. “He was driven by money while putting the truth in the back seat. He wishes he could go back in time with his newly developed moral compass and the wisdom and growth that he now possesses. If he could, he never would have been involved in anything remotely like this.”

Federal authorities are asking anyone who believes that they were victimized by the entities involved — Steele Hansmeier Law, Prenda Law, Alpha Law, Anti-Piracy Group, AF Holdings, Ingenuity 13, Guava LLC, Livewire and LW Systems — to contact them on a website they’ve set up.