Iowa Supreme Court suspends lawyer who was duped by Nigerian email scam

by Colin Smith | December 6, 2013

By Colin Smith

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended an attorney’s license for twelve months for getting his clients to invest thousands of dollars in a Nigerian email scam.

In 2011, Iowa attorney Robert Wright was representing Floyd Lee Madison in a criminal matter when Wright “was presented documents purporting to evidence that Madison was the beneficiary of a large bequest from his long-lost cousin in Nigeria.”  Those documents instructed Madison and Wright to forward over $170,000 in funds to cover “taxes owed” in Nigeria in order to release an inheritance worth over $18 million.   Believing (hoping?) for this to be true, Wright cut a deal with Madison: Wright would help Madison come up with the money to cover the Nigerian back taxes in exchange for Wright receiving ten percent of the funds recovered from the inheritance money.  If the deal worked, Madison would find himself exponentially richer, while Wright would earn $1.8 million in fees for his efforts.

In order to secure the funds necessary to appease the “Nigerian government,” Wright convinced five of his other clients to contribute thousands of dollars to the plan in exchange for their own small share of the soon-to-arrive bequest.  Wright pooled just shy of $120,000 and deposited the funds in his attorney-client trust account.  From there, he transferred the funds to people who were purportedly working on behalf of “Nigerian authorities” to help Wright and Madison obtain the inheritance money:

In the Course of his work on behalf of Madison in pursuit of the Nigerian inheritance, Wright communicated with persons he believed were representatives of the “Central Bank of Nigeria,” the “African Union,” and the President of Nigeria.  Wright also communicated with Okey Okafor, a person who claimed to be the Nigerian lawyer who had witnessed the decedent’s will.  Wright also had communications with a person who claimed to be a lawyer in England named Johnson Walkers.  Walkers claimed that he had, on Madison’s behalf, traveled to Nigeria and investigated the legitimacy of the inheritance.

After wiring the funds, Wright and Madison were informed that the bequest money would be released by Nigerian authorities via a transfer of funds to the Royal Bank of Canada.

The plan hit a snag.  For some reason, the funds could not be sent to the Canadian banking authorities, instead “Wright and Madison were told the inheritance — in the form of U.S. currency — has been shipped (for reasons not detailed in the record) in two trunks to Spain where the trunks supposedly came into the possession of a ‘diplomat’ in Madrid.”  This “diplomat” then demanded a payment of 25,600 Euros to relinquish possession of the trunks.  What happened next is a bit unclear, but it appears that following the instructions of the diplomat in possession of their fortune, Wright apparently assisted Madison in concealing the foreign currency in some luggage and sent Madison to Spain to meet the diplomat to secure the inheritance money.  Then came an event that neither Wright nor Madison had apparently thought would occur

Madison traveled to Spain . . . . but failed—for reasons not explained in the record—to obtain possession [of the inheritance money].  Madison recovered no funds from the supposed Nigerian inheritance.  As no funds were received by Madison, Wright received no compensation for his professional services in the matter.  The loans made to [Wright and Madison] by [Wright’s other clients] have not been repaid.


Upset at being unable to reap their promised portion of the Nigerian inheritance in exchange for their loans, Wright’s clients filed several attorney ethics complaints against Wright.  Wright was accused of violating Iowa’s attorney ethics rules requiring that a lawyer be competent in providing his services, failing to obtain client conflict of interest waivers in connection with the loans, entering into business relationships with clients that posed conflicts of interest, helping a client further conduct known to be illegal or fraudulent, and engaging in conduct involving fraud and deceit, among others.  At the time of the disciplinary proceedings against Wright, Wright appeared to have been still unaware that he might have fallen victim to a Nigerian scam.  The Grievance Commission wrote at the time:  “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 Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the prosecutors from the Attorney Disciplinary Board that Wright had violated the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct’s prohibitions against representing clients in ways that exhibit professional incompetency, that Wright improperly engaged in business transactions with current clients, and that Wright represented his clients in a manner that perpetuated professional misconduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. The Court accordingly suspended Wright’s license to practice law for twelve months.  The opinion is here.


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