A Canadian man accused of stealing some $23 million from more than 100 lawyers, including some in Pennsylvania, has been sentenced to 18 years in a federal prison, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Harrisburg announced Monday.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania imposed the sentence on Henry Okpalefe, 50, of Toronto, Ontario, and ordered him to pay $23 million in restitution to the victims and to forfeit an additional $504,787.
Okpalefe’s public defender, John Hunman, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jones found Okpalefe guilty of fraud and money laundering in a bench trial last year.
Prosecutors accused Okpalefe of making fake solicitations for representation to law firms, according to a transcript. A fictitious client would claim that a person owed him or her money, and the lawyer would receive a check, supposedly from the person who owed money to the fake client.
The lawyer would deposit the check into an IOLTA account and then transfer that money to the fictitious client’s bank account, which was always in an offshore bank, prosecutors said. The money would be withdrawn from that bank before the lawyer learned that the original check was counterfeit.
The amounts of the checks and transfers listed in Okpalefe’s indictment ranged from $244,000 to nearly $740,000.
Okpalefe attempted to target a number of lawyers and firms in Pennsylvania, the indictment said: They included Richard Gan of Carlisle, law firm Shumaker Williams in Camp Hill, Gene Goldenziel of Scranton, Anthony McBeth of Harrisburg, Deborah Hoff of Waynesboro and A. Mark Winter of Hershey.
In some of those cases, the lawyers were alerted that the check they received was counterfeit before making the transfer from the IOLTA account.
Paul Adams of Shumaker Williams testified during the March 2017 bench trial. He said in an interview that he recognized the name of a local company in the initial email request, realized “that it was going to be a fraud,” and reported the case to the postal authorities. He said he cut off representation before he experienced any losses.
Winter said he had also noticed something strange about the email request, and reported it. Winter also did not experience losses.
The defense did not dispute that there was a criminal conspiracy operating from the email account paulwhite2002za, Jones said, so the case came down to whether Okpalefe operated that account. Jones, in convicting, found that he did.
The trial transcript said investigators obtained more than 20,000 emails to and from the Paul White account, and there were 63 either addressed to or signed by “Henry.” They found no other names in the emails. And there were several emails instructing individuals to disburse fraud funds into a Nigerian bank account in the name Henry Okpalefe, or in one case, Abe Okpalefe.
A co-conspirator also admitted to being involved in the scheme, and testified that Okpalefe exclusively operated the Paul White account, Jones noted.