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Minnesota lawyer sent to prison for porn extortion

Threatened to reveal porn habits of hundreds of people.

Posted: Jun 15, 2019 12:06 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a Minneapolis lawyer to 14 years in prison for running a porn-related scheme.

Paul Hansmeier was convicted of running the multi-million-dollar fraud scheme from 2011 to 2014. Prosecutors allege Hansmeier extracted settlements from hundreds of people who feared being exposed as pornography consumers.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen told Hansmeier it was "almost incalculable how much your abuse of trust has harmed the administration of justice," the Star Tribune reported.

Ericksen complimented Hansmeier for being "smarter than all get out," then criticized him for taking advantage of the courts in his scheme to spread pornography on the internet so he could cajole people who downloaded it into paying settlements to avoid facing lawsuits.

Prosecutors said when Hansmeier was challenged by judges around the country, he blamed other lawyers who were hired to file lawsuits on his behalf, lied to the courts about his own involvement and ordered evidence to be destroyed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Langner noted that the case was being watched by people around the country. He asked for a term of 12.5 years, in part to act as a deterrent to others.

"The way he abused the court to line his pockets is outrageous," Langner said. "And when he got caught, his conduct got worse."

Hansmeier's co-defendant, former Chicago lawyer John Steele, pleaded guilty earlier. Steel cooperated in the case and awaits sentencing in Juliy.

Federal investigators concluded that Hansmeier and Steele collected $6 million in fraudulent legal settlements from 2010 through 2013. But because of problems in proving the elements of a crime required for conviction, the government limited the amount of recommended restitution that Hansmeier should pay to more than $1.5 million, payable to 704 victims who had paid settlements after April 1, 2011.

That date was selected because it's when Hansmeier had his brother, Peter Hansmeier, uploaded a pornographic video to a file-sharing site called Pirate Bay, FBI Special Agent Jared Kary said.

Peter Hansmeier also cooperated and was not charged in the scheme.

Manny Atwal, Paul Hansmeier's attorney, objected to the recommended restitution amount because investigators were unable to say precisely who downloaded which movie. She asked that Hansmeier's sentence be limited to just over 7 years in prison.

Paul Hansmeier pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. But he reserved the right to withdraw the plea if he's successful in appealing a denial of his earlier motion to dismiss the complaint. That appeal is pending.

The judge ordered Paul Hansmeier to pay $1.5 million in restitution. While the amount of money is significant, she said, "that's not even a major part of the harm" he'd done with his scheme.

"The major harm here is what happens when a lawyer acts as a wrecking ball," Ericksen said.

Before sentencing, Paul Hansmeier said he is "looking forward at long last to put this whole mess behind me."

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