US man pleads guilty over attempted $430m COVID fraud on NSW

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A man in Texas has pleaded guilty to attempting to swindle $430 million from the NSW government by offering to sell 50 million COVID-19 protective masks he did not have.

The man, Arael Doolittle, could face up to five years in jail over the attempted fraud involving the sale of the 3M N95 respirator masks to NSW in April 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to rage around the world and Australia was in the midst of its first serious outbreak of the virus.

N95 masks were in high demand at the start of the pandemic.Credit:Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mr Doolittle had falsely claimed he was in possession of the 50 million masks and offered to sell them to Australia for $5.50 each, around five times the normal retail price. However, he actually did not possess them and the entire deal was a sham. Mr Doolittle and co-accused Paschal Eleanya also tried to charge NSW millions more in brokerage fees, asking for a total of $430 million from the NSW government.

The plea agreement shows that NSW came perilously close to handing over the $430 million, transferring the full amount to a bank account set up by NSW in the US for the transaction, but did not complete the deal.

“On April 1, 2020, Australia provided Doolittle with proof of funds letter from Citi Treasury & Trade Solutions confirming that they had transferred sufficient funds from Australia to the United States…to cover the purchase of the N95 masks in the amount of $US317,589,761.04 ($430 million),” the plea agreement filed with the Texan court says.

The proof of funds letter was prepared to show the NSW government was a serious buyer.

The court documents shed light on the extraordinary lengths governments around the world were going to to acquire safety equipment for health care workers and other essential workers as the coronavirus pandemic began to rage around the world.

The plea agreement shows NSW sent its proof of funds letter to a private email address “[email protected]” that was operated by Mr Eleanya.

However, the deal started to hit a road block when NSW demanded to see the masks.

“When Doolittle and Eleanya were informed that Australia would not transfer any funds until they had an opportunity to inspect the masks, Doolittle and Eleanya falsely claimed that the 50 million N95 masks were in different locations and it would cost a lot of money to transfer all of the masks to one location for inspection,” the plea agreement states.

NSW did begin the process for transferring the conmen $100,000, but that payment was stopped by US Authorities before it was received by the fraudsters.

The Secret Service conducted the investigation.

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