Every gambler dreams of hitting a jackpot, but having a plan in place to product such a large sum is important. Hiring a lawyer can be a smart plan.
That’s what dozens of US jackpot winners did with a combined $3 billion in winnings. They hired self-described “Lottery Lawyer” Jason Kurland, trusting him to protect and invest their newfound fortunes.
Since then, however, a few of the lottery winners who hired Kurland have accused him of being the biggest threat to their windfalls.
Those three plaintiffs won jackpots totaling nearly $1.9 billion, and are almost a year into suing Kurland for allegedly defrauding them of $107 million. Their case already reads like a Hollywood script. Their complaint even mentions Uncut Gems, a movie about a doomed gambler pursuing a high-stakes bet. However, this real-world storyline is going through at least one more plot twist before reaching its denouement.
On Wednesday, the case moved from the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) to the Southern District of New York (SDNY). That’s because EDNY Acting US Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis recused herself due to a conflict of interest. She’s married to Kurland’s lawyer, Telemachus P. Kasulis.
Now, all matters related to the case need to head to SDNY Assistant US Attorney Olga I. Zverovich.
How the ‘Lottery Lawyer’ allegedly defrauded the jackpot winners
These three lottery players were living the dream of every US gambler and lottery player. The first winner picked the right Mega Millions numbers for a $1.5 billion prize. The second won a $245 million Powerball jackpot. The third chose the correct combination of figures in a $150 million Powerball lottery. This is according to EDNY, which announced on Aug. 18, 2020 that a grand jury had indicted Kurland and his “co-conspirators” Christopher Chierchio, Frangesco Russo and Francis Smookler.
Rather than dealing with the unfamiliar problems and anxiety of handling that much money themselves, the lottery winners hired Kurland. According to the announcement, “each paid Kurland and his law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars, in part so that he could advise them on how to safely invest their money.”
At that time, all four allegedly formulated plans to defraud the “Lottery Victims,” as EDNY refers to them.
The EDNY announcement stated:
“After gaining their trust with primarily traditional investments, Kurland steered his clients to invest in various entities and business deals controlled and directed by Russo, Smookler and Chierchio, and received kickbacks in return – which Kurland failed to disclose to his clients. The defendants then used the money from the lottery victims’ investments to keep their scheme going and to enrich themselves. A portion of these funds was funneled back to the lottery victims and falsely presented to them as ‘interest payments’ on their investments. Other funds went to Kurland as kickbacks.”
The quartet allegedly behaved like jackpot winners
The defendants were allegedly wiring the winners’ funds to their bank accounts $1 million to $20 million at a time.
Then the defendants are accused of doing exactly what lottery players dream of doing if they win. Allegedly, they used the victims’ winnings to buy private jets, luxury vehicles, two yachts and three homes in New York State and North Miami. The quartet also allegedly took expensive vacations.
The last wire transfer listed in the lottery victims’ complaint was in October 2019 for $5 million. By then, their lawyer and his co-conspirators had allegedly defrauded the plaintiffs of $107 million. However, the quartet allegedly attempted to continue the financial transactions until Aug. 13, 2020, which was the date stamped on the grand jury charges.
That day, the grand jury charged Chierchio, Kurland, Russo and Smookler with wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering and money laundering conspiracy.
The EDNY announcement read:
“In addition, Kurland was charged with honest services fraud for his role in the scheme.”
4 arrested, additional charges for Russo and Smookler
Chierchio, Kurland, Russo and Smookler were arrested, charged and pleaded not guilty on Aug. 18, 2020. The same day, all but Russo were released on bond.
However, the court stated that “Russo and Smookler are charged with extortionate extension and collection of credit for threatening to kill an individual and his family for failure to repay a usurious loan.”
The duo had allegedly invested some of the lottery victims’ money in a Ponzi scheme run by Gregory Altieri. The jeweler has since pleaded guilty for running the scheme of “nonexistent wholesale jewelry deals.”
However back in Spring 2020, Russo and Smookler allegedly provided Altieri a separate $250,000 “street loan” and expected to be repaid more than $400,000. Then they’re accused of using threats in their attempts to collect that sum.
According to the Aug. 18, 2020 EDNY announcement:
“Russo informed Altieri that he had a ‘few tactical shotguns . . . with lasers,’ and Smookler told Altieri that if he did not fully repay the loan, ‘it’s just going to be unbelievable.’ Russo compared himself to the mob-affiliated character in Uncut Gems, a movie that ends with the indebted diamond dealer shot dead. On another call, Russo told Altieri, ‘They’re gonna pop your head off in front of your f—— kids. This guy has no clue what he’s getting into.’ Smookler told Altieri, ‘You watch my man, you f—-d me, now watch what I am gonna do to you, I’m coming, brother. Full f—–g steam ahead.’ Russo and Smookler also threatened to harm Altieri’s family if Altieri did not repay the loan. Smookler told Altieri that, ‘[W]e are gonna find your wife today. That’s happening.’ Russo informed Altieri that the people coming for him are ‘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.’ “
Jackpot winners await justice
In December 2020, Russo requested to be released on bail due to his respiratory illness allegedly putting him at risk due to a coronavirus outbreak at the Brooklyn federal jail where he’s being held while he awaits his criminal trial. As of Thursday, Russo remained in jail.
As for a Kurland update – in April 2021, his attorneys asked the court to amend his bail so he could travel to his children’s sports tournaments.