MANHATTAN (CN) – A New York jewel tycoon pleaded guilty Friday to using a forged judge’s signature to scrub Google clean of bad reviews, in the same federal court district of the judge whose signature he copied.
Federal prosecutors Sheb Swett and Daniel S. Noble claimed that after successfully litigating one legitimate libel takedown request, the sapphire businessman Michael Arnstein went rogue with forged court orders to remove allegedly defamatory online reviews of his company.
Arnstein, the CEO of the Natural Sapphire Company in Midtown, was charged in April, accused of copying the signature of U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in the Southern District of New York.
On Friday, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to forge a judicial signature, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The plea agreement’s guideline range for sentencing was 12 to 18 months, with fines ranging from $5,500 to $55,000.00.
He previously faced two counts of forging a judge’s signature in addition to the related conspiracy count, each of which carried a possible five-year sentence.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said in a statement, “As he admitted today, Michael Arnstein exploited the authority of the federal judiciary in a blatantly criminal scheme. By forging court orders and the signature of a U.S. District Judge, Arnstein was able to effectively erase websites critical of Arnstein’s business from its search results. Now Arnstein awaits sentencing in the same court he impersonated.”
U.S. Attorney Kim also thanked Google for its assistance in the investigation.
“Arnstein’s attempts to remove any trace of unfavorable information about his business posted online sent him down a slippery slope,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said. “Not only did he commit a federal crime by forging a judge’s signature in furtherance of his scheme, but he now finds himself back on the Internet. This time, however, it’s a story no search engine can erase.”
According to federal prosecutors’ complaint, Google received at least 10 emails between Jan. 19, 2015, and Feb. 10, 2017, with forged orders bearing the signature of Judge Nathan, the judge who signed Arnstein’s 2012 default judgment.
The complaint alleged Arnstein submitted orders with bogus signatures and authority to Google, demanding the search behemoth de-index negative criticisms, “scrubbing” the search engine’s results.
Prosecutors uncovered emails where Arnstein enthusiastically recommended his successful scrubbing methods to third parties.
One email in the complaint read, “No bullshit: if I could do it all over again I would have found another court order injunction for removal of links (probably something that can be found online pretty easily) made changes in photoshop to show the links that I wanted removed and then sent to ‘email@example.com’ as a pdf — showing the court order docket number, the judges [sic] signature — but with the new links put in.”
Arnstein added in a 2014 email, “I could have saved 100K and 2 years of waiting/damage if I just used photoshop and a few hours of creative editing … Lawyers are often worse than the criminals.”
Arnstein, who lives in Kailua, Hawaii, was arrested on April 17 and was presented before U.S. Magistrate Barbara Moses, where he pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance.
He is represented by Steven Brounstein at Papa Depaola & Brounstein in Bayside, New York. Brounstein declined to comment on Friday’s guilty plea.
The government’s prosecution of the case was overseen by the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit.