Second Lawyer Pleads Guilty in Bizarre Scheme to Extort Millions From Porn Pirates

By Bryan Menegus on at

Paul Hansmeier, an American lawyer who could generously be called enterprising, has pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and wire fraud, concluding a bizarre saga of porn, piracy, and extortion.

As Gizmodo covered when the charges first came down in Minnesota District Court nearly two years ago, Hansmeier and his codefendant John L Steele were accused of coordinating “an elaborate scheme to fraudulently obtain millions of dollars in copyright lawsuit settlements” between 2011 and 2014. Disguising their actions behind shell companies, the pair bought rights to (and in some cases even filmed) various pornographic videos, made the content available on torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, and waited for downloads to roll in.

Hansmeier and Steele, acting as Prenda Law, would then discover the identities of those downloading the files through copyright violation suits, then use that information as leverage: settle with us for a few thousand dollars, or we take you to court—with the additional caveat that your name and associated adult entertainment taste will be entered into the public record. That the threats of legal action came from the copyright owners themselves, who also originally uploaded the content, was not disclosed to the targets of the scheme, which is thought to have netted around $6 million (£4.7 million).

Steele pleaded guilty in March of last year and agreed to help the prosecution. Yesterday, Hansmeier joined his conspirator in admitting his role in this long-running scam.