Lottery winners defrauded of their fortunes by lawyer Jason Kurland and his associates received some measure of justice last week. US District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis handed Kurland a stiff 13-year sentence for wire fraud, honest services wire fraud, and money laundering. Kurland had maintained his innocence while his three co-defendants all pleaded guilty. One, Christopher Chierchio, received a 5-year sentence from Judge Garaufis alongside Kurland.
The other two defendants were Frankie Russo and Frank Smookler. Smookler is a former securities broker while Russo and Chierchio are both reputed to have Mafia connections. All four were charged simultaneously in August 2020.
Kurland’s defense centered on the idea that he had been a victim himself, deceived by the other three. The jury saw things differently, finding him guilty on all counts in July 2022.
The Lottery Lawyer’s Fall From Grace
The victims in the case were winners of large Mega Millions and PowerBall jackpots. The largest of these was a $1.5 billion Mega Millions prize from October 2018. It remains the biggest all-time jackpot from Mega Millions and the third-largest from any lottery worldwide.
Before his fall from grace, Kurland had been known as “the Lottery Lawyer” and did business through a website by the same name.
That site – thelotterylawyer.com – is no longer active. However, until at least September 2019, his website boasted that he’d counseled lottery winners with $2.5 billion in combined jackpots. (The $1.5 billion winner was presumably his final client, as the website’s claim had been $1 billion a few months earlier.)
The website told visitors:
YOU HAVE ONLY ONE CHANCE TO DO THIS THE RIGHT WAY. I have represented many of the largest jackpot winners in lottery history.
Before you contact the Lottery Commission, get hounded by the media and get approached by people who want to separate you from your money, call me. I can help keep your name out of the papers and off the Internet. I can help secure your wealth for generations. I understand what needs to be done to protect your newfound fortune, because I have helped many winners just like you.
Instead, per the verdict, he defrauded those trusting clients of over $100 million.
US Attorney Damien Williams expressed his approval of the lengthy sentences:
The trial of Jason Kurland proved that Kurland violated his solemn duties as a lawyer and as an officer of the Court by stealing and misappropriating more than $100 million from his clients, who were some of the largest lottery winners in U.S. history. Just before trial, Christopher Chierchio pled guilty to assisting Kurland in this fraud, while personally pocketing more than $25 million of the lottery winners’ money. Now, the sentences imposed by Judge Garaufis show that for these defendants who made the lottery winners their victims, their luck has run out, and this Office will prosecute anyone who chooses to engage in fraud – no matter their title or degree.
Judge: Kurland Abused Clients’ Trust, Mishandled Money
The Department of Justice states that Kurland caused losses of approximately $80 million for his clients while enriching himself through their investments. He also stole $19.5 million from one of the victims directly.
The lottery winners had come to Kurland for help protecting and investing their winnings. One of the charges he was found guilty on, honest services fraud, is breaching that fiduciary duty. Per the charges against him, he steered his clients to invest in risky businesses without disclosing that he, Russo and Smookler were co-owners.
The DOJ says he profited both as an owner of the businesses and through undisclosed kickbacks.
When these and other high-risk investments began to implode, Chierchio appeared on the scene. According to the DOJ’s timeline of events, Kurland, Russo and Smookler used Chierchio as a middleman to invest in personal protective equipment shortly after COVID-19 began to spread through the US.
It was at this point that prosecutors say Kurland stole the $19.5 million from one victim to fund the scheme. Despite promising to help the others recoup the lost money, Chierchio later pleaded guilty to having skimmed much of it for himself.
Around the same time, Russo and Smookler had allegedly loaned $250,000 of the victims’ money to a jeweler, Gregory Altieri, then threatened him when he couldn’t repay.
Altieri later pleaded guilty to operating a Ponzi scheme based on “nonexistent wholesale jewelry deals,” bringing the total number of guilty parties involved in the case to five.