(LOS ANGELES) -- A federal judge has sanctioned four alleged perpetrators of a porn shakedown scheme -- all of them attorneys.
In a scathing decision, Judge Otis Wright for the central district of California earlier this week imposed sanctions against a group of lawyers who, he said, had "outmaneuvered the legal system" by figuring out a way to squeeze money from hundreds of people they accused of having illegally downloaded porn from the Internet.
The persons, rather than face the ignominy of having their porn habits made public, and lacking the resources to mount a legal self-defense, opted instead to settle with their accusers -- typically for around $4,000 per case. The result: the alleged perpetrators of the scheme, described by Wright as a "porno-trolling collective," made millions of dollars, according to Wright's May 6 order.
The four lawyers named in the case are John Steele, Paul Hansmeier, Paul Duffy, and Brett Gibbs. They routinely falsified court papers and testimony to advance their suits, the judge wrote, even using the identity of one of the lawyers' gardeners to fake documents submitted to courts. He recommended that the lawyers be disbarred for "moral turpitude" and systematically lying to the courts.
The genius of the scheme, according to Wright, was that the alleged perpetrators had "discovered the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs. They exploit this anomaly by accusing individuals of illegally downloading a single pornographic video. Then they offer to settle -- for a sum calculated to be just below the cost of a bare-bones defense."
Downloaders were accused of having failed to pay royalties due the copyright holders of the pornography, who in many cases, according to Wright, were the attorneys themselves, a fact that the lawyers worked to conceal from the courts and the defendants in the cases they filed.
"So, now," Wright writes, "copyright laws originally designed to compensate starving artists allow starving attorneys in this electronic-media era to plunder the citizenry."
A request by ABC News for further comment from Judge Wright went unanswered, as did similar requests to the accused attorneys.
The judge wrote that any resistance at all from the defendants in the porn trolling cases was swiftly met with a dismissal of the case. The lawyers were not willing or able to meet the high hurdles needed to prove in court that the people they sued had actually downloaded the porn, the judge wrote. The lawyers would simply put out their flypaper video clips on sites like Bittorent, and then file papers seeking the identities of the downloaders through IP addresses.
Star Trek references festoon Wright's order, which opens with a quote from Spock: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." The trolls are rebuked for having "cloaked" their fraud in such a way as to cause Judge Wright to go "to battlestations."
In imposing his sanctions, which include punitive fees totaling more than $81,000 and a promise to report the four attorneys to their respective Bar Associations, Wright, sticking with his Star Trek analogy, warns that far more serious punishments may lie ahead:
"Though plaintiffs boldly probe the outskirts of law, the only enterprise they resemble is RICO. The federal agency eleven decks up is familiar with their prime directive and will gladly refit them for their next voyage. The Court will refer this matter to the United States Attorney for the Central District of California [and] to the Criminal Investigation Divisions of the Internal Revenue Service."
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio