Federal prosecutors in Illinois fight telemarketing fraud in Pittsburgh area
More than 100 Western Pennsylvanians who wanted to unload time-share properties fell victim to one of several frauds carried out by scammers in Florida and Nevada.
Coming from Cranberry and Charleroi, Monroeville and Monongahela, Johnstown, New Castle and Pittsburgh, the victims sought justice for monetary losses in the thousands.
And they got it — in Southern Illinois.
There, the U.S. Attorney's Office has carved out a niche for prosecuting telemarketing fraud cases: nabbing a Canadian man in Cancun, Mexico, and a Nigerian national at London's Heathrow Airport.
Federal prosecutors in Southern Illinois have brought 76 telemarketing fraud cases since 2005, more than a quarter of all such cases over that time and more than any of the other 93 federal districts in the United States. In fact, U.S. attorneys in two-thirds of the other districts did not prosecute any such cases during that period, records show.
“There are some U.S. attorneys who are a little bit more parochial, who are looking just for the problems that touch and concern their district,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Reppert, chief of the fraud and corruption unit for Illinois' Southern District. “There are other U.S. attorneys that have a broader view of what federalism means and understand that we're all called upon to (handle) problems that are affecting the country as a whole.”
A Tribune-Review analysis of about 1.8 million criminal matters opened by federal prosecutors from 2005 through 2015 found that some U.S. attorney offices pursue certain crimes more aggressively, sometimes at the expense of others.
Because U.S. attorneys set local priorities for prosecutions, however, it's possible for regional offices to develop a national or even international expertise based on their unique resources and how they use them.
Prosecutors in Western Pennsylvania have focused on cybersecurity, bringing charges against Chinese military officers and accused Russian hackers. The cases were generated with the help of an FBI cybersecurity team based in Pittsburgh.
Likewise, the U.S. attorney in Southern Florida has gone after health care fraud more aggressively than anywhere in the United States.
But in Southern Illinois, the focus of a three-person unit has been telemarketing fraud — wherever it occurs. That practice has continued under Reppert's latest boss, James L. Porter, 63, who was appointed as the acting U.S. attorney for Illinois' Southern District on Dec. 12.
‘More than enough crime'
Investigators in Florida and Nevada, where many of the criminals are, do not always have the time or resources to chase them, said Adam Latham, a U.S. Postal Service inspector based in Southern Illinois who leads many of the fraud investigations.
“Overall, (Southern Illinois) is a large, rural district. Not that we don't have a lot of crime, but we just have the extra resources to do this,” Latham said.
With about 29 lawyers in the office, Reppert said, the focus on telemarketing fraud “stretches us thin.” But the native of West Newton, Westmoreland County, said the office has learned to handle the cases efficiently while pursuing other crimes.
The Trib's analysis shows that Southern Illinois' prosecutions of other crimes are comparable with other largely rural districts nearby — although regional priorities varied. For simple drug possession, for example, Southern Illinois and Southern Indiana each had 19 cases while Western Kentucky had 253.
Federal prosecutors in Nevada rarely file charges specifically for telemarketing fraud — just twice since 2005, the Trib found.
Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for Nevada, said his office has made financial crimes a priority, but it focuses on violations linked to mortgages, banks and investments. Nevada has prosecuted 91 mortgage fraud cases since 2005, eighth-most in the nation.
“One of the advantages of working in the U.S. attorney's office is that we have national and sometimes international jurisdiction,” Bogden told the Trib. “There is more than enough crime going around that we don't have to be territorial in what we do, which allows us to proceed with our best cases against the worst defendants, despite the location of those defendants and whose district will be prosecuting.”
After becoming U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois in 2002, Miriam Miquelon Weismann suggested that Reppert, the fraud and corruption chief, take a closer look at phone and Internet crimes. She had worked in Brooklyn as a young federal prosecutor going after so-called “boiler rooms,” places packed with people making scam phone calls.
If Southern Illinois had at least one fraud victim, Weismann wanted to go after the perpetrators, no matter where they were operating.
“We just went out there and said, ‘These are global problems. We're a small office, but we really like to think about what we can do,'” said Weismann, who teaches business law at Florida International University in Miami.
“That was sort of my philosophy as a U.S. attorney: If it touches the floor in my venue, I'll go after it everywhere and bring the case in the Southern District of Illinois.”
Most situations favor the scammers, Reppert said. Telemarketing criminals rarely hit victims nearby, and U.S. attorneys have less interest in going after perpetrators in their district when the victims are in other places. Other U.S. attorneys pay little attention because the victims are scattered throughout the nation.
If Reppert doesn't charge them, it's possible no one will.
Federal prosecutors won a guilty plea from Canadian Terrence Croteau in 2006 to charges he ran a company that tricked American businesses into buying listings in nonexistent or hard-to-find online business directories. Authorities nabbed Croteau, wearing swim trunks and flip-flops, on the beach in Cancun. He was sentenced to 151 months in prison and $2.9 million in restitution.
Nigerian national Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, pleaded guilty in March to meeting women through dating sites and luring them into sending money. Scotland Yard arrested Sunmola as he prepared to board a flight from London's Heathrow Airport to South Africa. He faces up to 127 years in prison at sentencing in August.
Patrick Nosack of Henderson, Nev., admitted last year that he had scammed victims into sending him money to resell time-share properties, which he rarely sold.
He had more than 3,000 victims from all 50 states, every Canadian province, Australia, Israel and the United Kingdom. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and restitution of $23,770.
“The amount of fraud out there is just positively staggering,” Reppert said. “The ocean is so vast, and our boat is so small, but you've got to start somewhere. We've decided we need to make a start, not just for the country as a whole, but for our residents.”
Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301. Andrew Conte is a former Tribune-Review investigations team member who teaches at the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.