A New York lawyer was busted by the FBI in a sprawling alleged scheme to defraud lottery winners of millions, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Jason Kurland, 46, the self-proclaimed “lottery lawyer,” allegedly fleeced his clients for more than $107 million of their lottery winnings, according to an indictment obtained by Oxygen.com. He was charged with numerous counts of honest services fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit fraud.
Christopher Chierchio, 52, a suspected Genovese crime family mobster, Francis Smookler, 45, an ex-securities broker, and Frangesco Russo, 38, were also indicted on wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and money laundering conspiracy charges related to the scam.
Federal prosecutors alleged Kurland was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by three separate lottery winners, whose money he promised to “safely” invest. However, investigators allege the New York attorney manipulated them into entering into “business dealings controlled by Russo, Smookler, and Chierchio — and was given kickbacks in exchange.
He failed to disclose the profits he made on their investments, prosecutors said. Kurland and his associates allegedly used the cash they skimmed off of lottery victims' investments to “enrich themselves” and perpetuate the scam.
“Defendant Kurland allegedly violated the law and his oath as a lawyer when he allowed co-conspirators to pillage his clients’ bank accounts for their own enrichment,” Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said in a statement.
Kurland and his associates allegedly spent their millions on private jets, lavish vacations, luxury vehicles, and yachts, prosecutors said. Authorities said a mere fraction of the investment funds were returned to Kurland’s clients as “interest payments.”
The victims, who had collectively amassed more than $1.8 billion in jackpot winnings, weren’t identified.
“Lottery winners can't believe their luck when they win millions of dollars, and the men we arrested this morning allegedly used that euphoric feeling to their advantage,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney stated. “The FBI New York discovered how these victims were persuaded to put large chunks of their cash into investments that benefited the defendants. Rather than try their luck at the lottery, these men resorted to defrauding the victims to get rich, but their gamble didn't pay off.”
Kurland, who has supposedly represented dozens of lottery winners around the U.S. — whose cash prizes total roughly $3 billion — had been a partner at Rivkin Radler Law Firm. The firm, which has offices in Manhattan, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley, confirmed Kurland was fired following his arrest and the organization was cooperating with investigators, communication director Laurie Bloom told Oxygen.com.
“We were taken by complete surprise by the allegations against Mr. Kurland," Bloom said. "The firm has no role in, nor knowledge of, the criminal activities described."
In one instance, Kurland allegedly withdrew $19.5 million from one of his client’s accounts and turned it over to his three associates, according to the indictment.
A trove of wiretaps intercepted several conversations between Kurland, Russo, Smookler, and Chierchio, who discussed the suspected scam, as well as covering their tracks, authorities said.
At one point, Kurland allegedly warned his associates they were “playing with fire,” according to the New York Times.
Russo and Smookler allegedly took some of their earnings from the lottery scheme and later extended a high-interest $250,000 “street loan” to jeweler Gregory Altieri, according to wiretap recordings. The pair expected to be repaid to the tune of $400,000.
“In addition, Russo and Smookler allegedly threatened to torture an individual’s wife and children,” DuCharme added. “The defendants callously thought they could line their pockets with lottery winnings without consequence, but today their luck ran out.”
In the damning recordings, Russo compared himself to a mob-connected character in the blockbuster film “Uncut Gems," starring Adam Sandler. He told Altieri he had a “few tactical shotguns ... with lasers,” and allegedly threatened the jeweler’s family and children.
“They’re gonna pop your head off in front of your f---ing kids,” Russo allegedly said.
Russo then allegedly threatened to yank his son’s teeth out while he watched.
“[They’re] going to make you watch as they rip your son’s teeth out of his mouth, watch, they’re going to do worse things to your wife,” he allegedly added.
Smookler, too, is accused of making similar threats if the jeweler didn’t fulfill the debt, prosecutors said.
“[W]e are gonna find your wife today,” Smookler allegedly said. “That’s happening.”
“You watch my man, you f---ked me, now watch what I am gonna do to you, I’m coming brother,” he allegedly warned Altieri. “Full f--king steam ahead.”
Investigators also executed warrants to seize 13 bank accounts connected to the scheme and have placed liens on three properties Smookler and Russo allegedly bought with the funds used to defraud Kurland’s clients.
Chierchio, a suspect mafia soldier, was charged but later acquitted on bid-rigging and tax evasion charges in 2019, according to a separate indictment obtained by Oxygen.com. The Staten Island businessman has previously denied his connections to the mafia, according to the Staten Island Advance.
Kurland, Russo, Smookler, and Chierchio were arraigned on Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court.
Russo appeared in court again on Wednesday after the government appealed his $2 million bond set by a magistrate judge.
“What brings us here is the danger the defendant poses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Gerdes said during the teleconference bail hearing, which Oxygen.com observed.
During the proceedings, the government painted Russo as a dangerous and untrustworthy fraudster whose illicit schemes funded his opulent lifestyle.
“In this situation with Mr. Russo, the threats are just so menacing, explicit, and frankly terrifying,” prosecutors said.
Russo’s attorney Joseph Conway called the alleged threats “nothing more than puffery” and “boisterous” language.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis wasn't persuaded and ordered Russo's detention pending trial.
“The defendant has demonstrated that he constitutes a threat to the community,” Judge Garaufis said. “That is my great concern here.”
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