For years, New York attorney Jason Kurland was the “go-to” lawyer for lottery winners.
Having represented dozens of lucky people across the country—whose total winnings estimated $3 billion—the attorney appeared on CNN and CNBC as a “lottery law expert,” offering advice on how winners can protect their sudden infusion of cash.
“The biggest mistake people make is doing it on their own,” Kurland said in a 2019 interview, stressing that it’s important for lottery winners to “know that someone can walk you through it, step by step, so there are no surprises.”
But prosecutors on Tuesday allege that the self-dubbed “Lottery Lawyer” was actually stealing tens of millions of dollars from his clients with the help of three other individuals—including a mafia member—to fund their extravagant lifestyles.
Kurland, a 46-year-old partner at Rivkin Radler, now faces several charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering, in connection with the scheme to steal $107 million from his clients, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
Prosecutors said they have also charged Christopher Chierchio, a 52-year-old “reputed soldier in the Genovese crime family,” 45-year-old former securities broker Francis Smookler, and 38-year-old Frangesco Russo with wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, and money laundering conspiracy for their roles in the scheme. Russo and Smookler face additional charges “for threatening to kill an individual and his family for failure to repay a usurious loan,” according to the feds. All four pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court.
Prosecutors allege Kurland encouraged his newly wealthy clients to make large investments in companies run by his three accomplices for over a year—earning undisclosed kickbacks in return. The group used that investment money to buy private jets, expensive vacations, and at least two yachts.
“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,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said in a statement. “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.”
According to the indictment and a detention memo obtained by The Daily Beast, Kurland has worked with dozens of lottery winners over the years, including a South Carolina resident who won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions lottery and another from Staten Island who won the $245 million Powerball jackpot.
After their big wins, prosecutors allege they each paid Kurland and his law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the Long Island lawyer advise them on how to safely invest their newfound wealth.
“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,” prosecutors allege.
The detention memo states that on at least one occasion, Kurland transferred “$19.5 million out of one of his clients’ accounts without permission, much of which was ultimately funneled to Chierchio,” who is described as a “soldier in the Genovese crime family of La Cosa Nostra and controls an entity called Chrch Group.” The detention memo added that “Chrch Group received $1.4 million from one lottery victim and at least $15.5 million from another.”
Prosecutors allege that while some of the stolen money was used to keep the scheme going—and some was used to pay back victims under the guise of “interest payments” on their purported investments—“millions of dollars” were spent on the group’s “lavish lifestyles that included flying private jets, taking exotic vacations, buying boats, paying country club dues and even ‘wrapping’ luxury cars.”
“Smookler, Russo and Kurland all have vanity plates on their cars, with Kurland proudly displaying the name of his entity, GK3, through which he siphoned off his clients’ winnings,” the memo states, noting the cars were all purchased with the stolen funds.
“Chierchio has had a chauffeur who drives him in a $73,000 Cadillac Escalade,” the memo added. “He lives in a luxury building in Manhattan, which is equipped with multiple swimming pools, a staff of attaches for personal errands, a fitness center and a climbing wall. Chierchio’s apartment was last listed for rent at over $11,000 per month.”
And as Kurland and the others “profited handsomely” as a result of the scheme, the funds that were actually invested “were, in large part, eventually lost,” the feds said. All told, of the $107 million that was invested by the lottery winners with the group’s businesses, “over $80 million was either stolen or lost.”
The indictment states that Russo and Smookler invested some of the money with jewelry merchant Gregory Altieri, then extended him a $250,000 “street loan.” During the investigation, authorities captured a conversation that indicated Russo and Smookler expected to be repaid $400,000 for the loan—and threatened the jewelry merchant when they attempted to collect the funds.
“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,’” prosecutors said. “Russo compared himself to the mob-affiliated character in Uncut Gems, a movie that ends with the indebted diamond dealer shot dead.”
The duo also allegedly threatened to harm the jeweler’s family if he did not repay the loan, with Smookler allegedly telling Altieri “[w]e are gonna find your wife today,” while Russo said individuals coming for him were “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.”
Chierchio’s defense attorney, Gerald J. McMahon, asserted to Associated Press that his client is innocent and disputed his alleged involvement in the New York crime family.
“If he were not Italian, there would be no accusation of this nature,” he told the AP. The lawyers for the four individuals did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.