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Man Pleads Guilty In $2.6M Prison Legal Aid Scam

YALE (WWJ/AP) - A southeastern Michigan man has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, two years after being accused of stealing $2.6 million from thousands of prisoners and their family members nationwide.

John Wilson, 57, of Yale, also pleaded guilty to a tax crime and agreed to pay $2 million. He faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing April 11.

Wilson was indicted in October 2010 on 66 counts of mail fraud.

United States Attorney Barbara McQuade said Wilson raised false hopes that he could overturn the convictions or reduce the sentences of the inmates if their friends and family members hired his companies.

According to the indictment, Wilson's three businesses sent direct mailings to inmates offering to provide legal and appellate court work. When a family member or friend contacted Wilson or co-defendant Lari Zeka, they explained that payment was required for two phases: legal research and attorney retainer.

Wilson and Zeka allegedly promised that legal research would be provided during the first phase which would help win the inmate's appeal, and during the second phase, the "attorney retainer" phase, that an attorney would be provided to assist in the case.

McQuade said people across the U.S. mailed large amounts of money to Wilson's businesses, purportedly for appellate research and appellate representation when, in fact, any research provided would not assist the inmate and no attorney would ever be provided to work on the inmate's appeal.

According to the indictment, Wilson and Zeka frequently used fictitious names in correspondence with the victims and both repeatedly represented themselves as attorneys or represented that attorneys were on the staff. Neither Wilson nor Zeka is licensed to practice law and no attorneys were on staff at any of the companies.

Zeka, of Macomb County's Macomb Township, pleaded guilty in January and is awaiting sentencing.

During the scheme, John Wilson also failed to file tax his federal income tax returns for many years. As part of the plea, Wilson pleaded guilty to the federal offense of failing to file income tax returns.

"This fraud scheme preyed upon family members who were desperate to obtain help for loved ones. Not only did this scheme exploit people in need of legal services, but it also denied them access to justice," McQuade said in a statement.

McQuade congratulated the hard work of the inspectors at the United States Postal Service and the agents at the Criminal Investigations Division of the Internal Revenue Service for their efforts in pursuing this case.

TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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