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Minnesota lawyer gets 14 years in prison for ‘porno-trolling’ internet users

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minneapolis lawyer convicted of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme through “porno-trolling” was sentenced Friday to 14 years in prison.

Paul Hansmeier, 37, of Woodbury, and his law partner John Steele, an Illinois attorney, pleaded guilty in August to committing mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering when they baited internet users with porn movies, some they filmed themselves, in order to sue them for copyright infringement when the user tried to download the movie.

“Today’s sentence for Paul Hansmeier is the just result for an attorney who abused his license to practice law and disgraced himself and the bar in so many ways,” said Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “Hansmeier’s role in this salacious fraud scheme exploited victims by misusing his position of trust as an officer of the court.”

The scheme began in 2010 when Hansmeier and Steele would threaten copyright lawsuits against people who downloaded pornographic movies from file-sharing websites such as “The Pirate Bay.”

According to court documents, the two lawyers used extortion tactics such as letters and phone calls to threaten the users with enormous financial penalties and public embarrassment unless they agreed to pay a $3,000 settlement fee.

In 2011, the lawyers began trying to cover their tracks, creating “Prenda Law” and other shell companies to pursue their claims and distance themselves from any potential fallout.

In total, Hansmeier and Steele obtained approximately $3 million from the fraudulent copyright lawsuits.

Hansmeier’s sentence included two years of supervised release and he must pay $1.5 million in restitution. He was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis before Judge Joan Ericksen.

Steele is scheduled to be sentenced on July 9.