CHICAGO — A Chicago lawyer has been charged in an alleged scheme where he and a business partner would put porn movies on shareable websites and then threaten to publicly expose people who downloaded the films unless a settlement was paid.
In some cases, Chicago attorney John L. Steele and a fellow lawyer based in Minnesota would hire porn actors to make short X-rated films; in other cases they held the copyrights to existing films, according to a federal indictment.
By posting the movies — "Sexual Beauty" and "Busty Beauty in Red Lingerie" were reportedly two of the titles — on sharing sites using shell companies, the lawyers essentially lured people to "infringe their own copyrights," according to the indictment announced in Minnesota.
The two, dubbed "porn trolls" in some accounts, were allegedly able to squeeze some $6 million from their victims.
Steele and his partner, Paul Hansmeier, would obtain the identities of those who downloaded the films through the court system, using copyright infringement lawsuits, U.S. attorney Andrew Luger said in announcing the indictment Friday in Minneapolis.
"The conduct of these defendants was outrageous," Luger said, describing in a news release how "the defendants used extortionate letters and phone calls to threaten the victims with enormous financial penalties and public embarrassment unless they agreed to pay a settlement of thousands of dollars."
Steele, who was a partner in the now-defunct Prenda Law firm, previously faced Illinois sanctions for allegedly lying to judges.
Steele could not be reached for comment, but in 2010 he told the Tribune, "If we just sit back and let the little guy steal, there won't be any [porn] industry left."
The most recent indictment includes wire fraud, mail fraud, money-laundering and perjury charges. Steele was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Hansmeier's attorney told the newspaper he had no immediate comment.