In fact, Kurland was the one stealing tens of millions from his clients, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday. He allegedly worked with a known mob associate to execute his scheme.
An indictment from the U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of New York alleges Kurland, 46, defrauded three lottery winning clients out of $107 million. One of his alleged partners was Christopher Chierchio, 52, whom prosecutors say is a known soldier for the Genovese crime family.
“The defendants callously thought they could line their pockets with lottery winnings without consequence, but today their luck ran out,” said Seth D. DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a news release.
All four men pleaded not guilty in the Brooklyn court on Tuesday. A lawyer for Kurland did not immediately respond to a message. Chierchio’s lawyer denied his client’s connection to the mob. “He has never once been even charged with being, much less convicted, a Mafia soldier,” Gerald McMahon said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Kurland spent years successfully branding himself as the premier lawyer for lottery winners. In interviews, he usually came armed with advice for winners: triple check the numbers and date on the ticket, make a copy, put it in a safe place, and don’t tell anybody. He would also advise them to consider moving, shutting down their social media and changing their phone numbers. But most importantly, he’d tell them, they needed legal representation as protection from scammers.
“A lot of these winners are not sophisticated enough to see it, so you really have to rely on the professionals,” Kurland told Vice in 2016.
Kurland decorated his Long Island office with stacks of oversized novelty checks and described himself as a mentor, working with the two extremes on the spectrum: those who were still flying coach and those recklessly buying homes for all their friends.
“I protect the ones that are going to spend too much and I try to teach the other ones how to be a wealthy person,” Kurland said in an interview on “Going In with Brian Vines,” a Web series.
But all that wisdom came with a price. Kurland charged his clients an upfront retainer fee of between $75,000 and $200,000, prosecutors said. On top of that, he required a monthly fee of between $15,000 and $50,000.
He worked with dozens of prizewinners during his tenure. Three of his clients, who prosecutors say ended up targets of his scheme, collectively won an estimated $3 billion — one of whom was a South Carolina man who won last year’s Mega Millions jackpot worth $1.5 billion.
After first making conservative investments and gaining his clients trust, prosecutors allege Kurland convinced them to put money into companies run by his co-conspirators Chierchio, Francis Smookler, 45, and Frangesco Russo, 38.
“Lottery winners can’t believe their luck when they win millions of dollars, and the men we arrested this morning allegedly used that euphoric feeling to their advantage,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney, Jr. in the news release.
While some of the money went back to clients as supposed interest payments, the defendants allegedly used the rest to bankroll a lavish lifestyle. Federal prosecutors allege the men used the funds to pay for elaborate vacations, golf club memberships, shopping sprees, private jets, luxury cars and yachts.
“The funds that the defendants actually invested in various entities and deals were, in large part, eventually lost,” the news release said.
In one instance, Kurland withdrew $19.5 million out of one of his clients’ accounts without their knowledge and gave most of it to Chierchio, prosecutors allege. During the investigation, law enforcement wiretapped the men’s phones.
In some of the calls, investigators say they heard the defendants discuss their scheme and attempts to cover it up. According to the New York Times, Kurland warned at one point that they were “playing with fire.”
Chierchio apparently wasn’t concerned. “So bring the FBI Who cares?” he said. “It doesn’t matter. I laugh at them. Okay? I laugh at them.”
Russo and Smookler face additional charges, thanks to the phone recordings. The two invested in Gregory Altieri, a jewelry merchant, and added an additional $250,000 loan for the owner. But when Altieri couldn’t pay them back, the men allegedly told him they were sending men to kill him and harm his family, the feds said.
“We are gonna find your wife today. That’s happening,” Smookler said, according to the news release. Russo also told Altieri he was going to “watch as they rip your son’s teeth out of his mouth, watch, they’re going to do worse things to your wife.”
Lawyers for Russo and Smookler did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors on Tuesday charged Kurland and the three alleged co-conspirators with wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, and money laundering conspiracy. Kurland was also charged with honest services fraud.
The government said it is working to repay the lottery winners who were allegedly defrauded. Prosecutors said they seized more than a dozen bank accounts and placed liens on three properties.
“Rather than try their luck at the lottery, these men resorted to defrauding the victims to get rich, but their gamble didn’t pay off,” Sweeney said.