A Georgia man was charged in federal court Thursday with trying to swindle a foreign government out of $317 million by promising to sell it face masks to protect against the coronavirus with a huge shipment that never existed.
Paul Penn faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of criminal attempt and conspiracy, according to documents filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Savannah.
Prosecutors said Penn and at least two partners negotiated a deal between March and April to sell 50 million N95 respirator masks to a foreign government. Prosecutors did not identity the government involved.
The sellers never had the masks, prosecutors said in a court filing, yet they persuaded the foreign government to wire $317 million to a bank account. Prosecutors said the sales price was five times the market value for the masks.
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The U.S. Secret Service stopped the transaction before it could be completed, according to a news release from the office of U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine of the Southern District of Georgia.
"Using a worldwide pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of those searching for badly needed personal protective equipment is reprehensible," Christine said in a statement. He pledged that federal authorities "will aggressively seek out any fraudsters who exploit this crisis as a way to make a quick buck."
Court records did not list an attorney for Penn. Prosecutors did not identify the two people they said were Penn's partners in the scheme.
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Prosecutors said Penn helped negotiate the sale through his company, Spectrum Global Holdings LLC. Georgia incorporation records show Penn formed the company in 2018 in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross.