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Iowa lawyer who fell for ‘Nigerian inheritance’ scam loses law license for a year


Uh oh...
At one point in the scam, Robert Wright Jr. believed he was talking to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (pictured). — photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

A Des Moines lawyer has lost his license to practice law for a year after unwittingly involving himself and others in a Nigerian inheritance scam.

According to an Iowa Supreme Court report filed on December 6, attorney Robert Wright Jr. violated several sections of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct in his attempt to secure, on behalf of client Floyd Madison, a supposed inheritance of $18.8 million.

Wright disbursed more than $200,000 in pursuit of the inheritance money, according to the report. The money never came, Wright never got his cut, and more than $200,000 is now unaccounted for — presumably in the hands of a scam operation.

Lets make a deal…

In 2011, Madison received a letter naming him the beneficiary of a large inheritance from a supposed long-lost cousin in Nigeria, if only he could cough up $177,660 in inheritance taxes. It’s a well-known scam — often the subject of comedy. Its Wikipedia entry stretches on for nearly 8,000 words.

Madison wasn’t privy.

He approached Wright with news of his supposed inheritance. The two were in regular contact at this time, with Wright representing Madison in an ongoing, unrelated criminal case.

Wright, also unaware of the scam, agreed to represent Madison in securing the transfer of funds from Nigeria. In return, the two agreed that Wright would collect ten percent of the expected $18.8 million. Having struck a deal, the next big hurdle involved collecting $177,660 in order to pay off the supposed tax. As far as they knew, it was the one thing keeping Madison from receiving an enormous inheritance.

Acting on Madison’s behalf, Wright looked for fundraising opportunities within his own client-base, according to the report:
 

Wright was at that time representing Danny Wayne Rynearson in a pending felony criminal case. Wright knew Rynearson might have funds that Madison could borrow for the purpose of paying the taxes and fees on the Nigerian funds. Armed with this knowledge, Wright approached Rynearson about his willingness to make a loan to Madison.

 

Wright arranged a meeting in his office between Madison, Rynearson and Rynearson’s wife to discuss a potential deal. As a result of this June 9, 2011 meeting, the Rynearson’s wrote a check in the amount of $12,000, payable to Wright, as a loan to Madison.

Wright then prepared and signed a letter confirming the Rynearson’s loan to Madison “for the purpose of paying the Nigerian tax,” the report states. The letter promised $50,000 to the Rynearson’s upon receipt of the inherited funds.

Wright would again approach the Rynearson’s, informing the couple that he was in immediate need of an additional $12,500 to secure the funds and “desperately needed their help,” the report states. On August 1, 2011, Mrs. Rynearson wrote a second check in the amount of of $12,500 to Wright. He then deposited both checks into his trust account.

Nice settlement you have there…

Another chance for fundraising came as the result of client Linda Putz. Wright was representing Putz at the time in a pending workers’ compensation case and knew his client would soon receive approximately $25,000 through a settlement. Wright seized the opportunity, according to the report:
 

Wright informed her Madison hoped to borrow money to pay Nigerian authorities for an “anti-terrorism certificate” and inquired whether Putz would be willing to loan the sum of $12,500 for this purpose. In a letter to Putz dated August 12, 2011, Wright memorialized a proposed loan agreement calling for Madison to repay the loan with a payment of $50,000 upon his receipt of the inheritance which was anticipated “before August 24, 2011.”

Putz later agreed to loan Madison an additional $12,500, and thus loaned the entire net proceeds of her settlement to Madison in consideration for his promise to pay her $100,000 upon receipt of the inheritance from Nigeria. All of the proceeds of Putz’s loans to Madison were deposited in Wright’s trust account.

 
A disclosure statement submitted by Wright to The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board later revealed that Wright solicited loans for Madison from three additional clients — $7,000 from Toryan White, $160,000 from Vern Stodden and $20,000 from Bob Nunneman.

Yes, Mr. President?

The report indicates Wright remained skeptical throughout his pursuit of the inheritance funds. While working on behalf of Madison, Wright spoke with a number of people he believe to be Nigerian officials, including representatives of the “Central Bank of Nigeria,” the “African Union” and a Nigerian lawyer who claimed to have witnessed the alleged descendant’s will, the report states.

The Board characterized Wright’s conduct as “delusional, but not fraudulent.”

Wright also spoke with a man who claimed to be be a lawyer based out of England. The man, who called himself “Johnson Walkers,” reassured Wright that — on Madison’s behalf — he had personally traveled to Nigeria to confirm the legitimacy of the inheritance claims.

Eventually, Wright spoke to a man who claimed to be the President of Nigeria. He was convinced.

Having collected enough money, Wright transferred all of the loan proceeds he had gathered on Madison’s behalf in an effort to secure the inheritance, according to the report.

At first, Madison and Wright were told that Nigerian authorities would transfer the funds to the Royal Bank of Canada. Later, they were told that the funds had been intercepted by a Spanish diplomat who, citing “logistic charges,” demanded €25,600 (about $35,000) to release the funds. Wright and Madison were told that the money was shipped in two trunks and, in order to take possession of the trunks, they would need to travel to Madrid and pay the fee personally.

Wright stayed behind while Madison traveled to Spain. Madison later told Wright that although he had seen the two trunks, he failed to take possession of them for reasons unexplained, the report states.

We’ve made a huge mistake…

By this point, more than $200,000 had been lost in the scam, and the loans made to Madison by the Rynearsons, Putz, White, Stodden, and Nunneman have not been repaid, the report states.

When charges were first brought forward against Wright by The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board, a post-hearing brief noted that, “Wright clearly believed in the legitimacy of Madison’s inheritance…” and “Wright appears to have honestly believed — and continues to believe — that one day a trunk full of…one hundred dollar bills is going to appear upon his office doorstep.”

The Board characterized Wright’s conduct as “delusional, but not fraudulent,” according to the report. In particular, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that Wright “failed to make a competent analysis of the bona fides of Madison’s Nigerian legal matter,” a violation of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct.

“We suspend Wright’s license to practice law in this state with no possibility of reinstatement for a period of no less than twelve months,” the report concludes. “This suspension applies to all facets of the practice of law, including but not limited to advertising his services.”

Wright’s license is already temporarily suspended as the result of an August 16, 2012 ruling where it was determined Wright failed to cooperate with the Client Security Commission regarding an audit of his lawyer trust account. This most recent suspension will begin once the initial suspension has ended.

The December 6 report notes, “Wright has a long history of pro bono service to indigent clients and dedication to public service.” The Iowa Supreme Court considered this as a mitigating factor in its decision.


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