The political scandal is on a much smaller scale than Russia's interference with the 2016 presidential election, but Staten Island has its own fake news controversy. The case involves two primary election campaigns, a few fake Facebook pages and an ...
Richard A. Luthmann outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. He has been accused of creating fake social media profiles to influence local elections.CreditCreditStaten Island Advance/Mira Wassef
Nov. 30, 2018
The political scandal is on a much smaller scale than Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election, but Staten Island has its own fake news controversy.
The case involves two primary election campaigns, a few fake Facebook pages and an eccentric, bow-tie-wearing lawyer named Richard A. Luthmann.
A fixture in Staten Island, Mr. Luthmann, who once asked a judge to let him settle a lawsuit with a duel, was accused in a criminal indictment unsealed on Thursday of creating fake Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to influence local elections.
He was arraigned on Thursday on multiple charges of falsifying business records and identity theft. He also faces charges of stalking, criminal impersonation, falsifying a report to law enforcement and two election law violations. He faces up to four years in prison on the top count.
Eric Nelson, a special prosecutor appointed in 2016 to handle the matter, said on Friday that Mr. Luthmann had impersonated three local politicians on social media: the Staten Island district attorney, a Republican candidate for the State Assembly and a Democratic city councilwoman.
Mr. Luthmann, 39, created phony pages for these individuals, Mr. Nelson said, and then used them to disseminate false information. “These positions were put out that were contrary to their positions, and it did harm to their reputations,” Mr. Nelson said.
Some of this misinformation was posted during two primary campaigns, leading to the election law charges, Mr. Nelson said.
The first involved Janine Materna, who challenged Assemblyman Ron Castorina Jr., in a Republican primary in September 2016.
Mr. Luthmann launched a fake page for Ms. Materna that falsely represented her views, Mr. Nelson said. One post, for instance, called for more housing projects. Another was titled “Black Lives Matter,” and showed Ms. Materna with former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., which hurt Ms. Materna in the conservative district. (One Facebook commenter told Ms. Materna that she’d lost a vote.)
The stalking charge against Mr. Luthmann was also related to Ms. Materna’s fake profile, Mr. Nelson said. Some of the information posted there, including a report that she parked in a disabled parking space, led to personal attacks and threats against her, the prosecutor said.
A year later, Mr. Luthmann created another fake social media account for City Councilwoman Debi Rose, a Democrat representing the island’s northern neighborhoods, Mr. Nelson said. At the time, Ms. Rose was facing a primary-election challenge from Kamillah Hanks, a community organizer. That page, among other things, said Ms. Rose “welcomes” a welfare hotel for drug addicts and criminals.
Both Ms. Hanks and Mr. Castorina denied in interviews last year being involved in the fake Facebook pages. But records showed that Mr. Luthmann was paid $1,650 for petitioning expenses by Ms. Hanks’s campaign, and Facebook Messenger conversations reviewed by The Times suggested both politicians were tied to Mr. Luthmann’s efforts.
Mr. Luthmann is currently in jail awaiting trial in an unrelated federal fraud case, in which he is accused of a string of bizarre crimes. When asked last year, he would neither confirm nor deny that he had created the false Facebook pages, but he said that there would be nothing wrong if he had. “It’s what is called a dirty trick,” Mr. Luthmann said.
Mr. Luthmann’s lawyer, Joseph Sorrentino, said on Friday that neither he nor his client have had a chance to fully review the charges. But Mr. Sorrentino added that he did not believe that New York law made it illegal to do some of the things that prosecutors have accused Mr. Luthmann of doing.
“If you look at the indictment, my client is alleged to have falsified the business records of Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “And I don’t believe that as a third party user of those sites, he can do that.”
Last December, federal prosecutors accused Mr. Luthmann of working with two reputed mobsters and a blind man to pack shipping containers with “cheap filler,” which they then fraudulently sold as scrap metal to local businesses. Then, prosecutors said, he turned on one of his partners and had him held at gunpoint to collect a $7,000 debt.
Federal prosecutors have also said that Mr. Luthmann once tried to pay one of his partners in that scheme, who had alleged Mafia ties, to murder a top official in Staten Island’s Democratic Party and to “beat up” a second official.
According to court papers, Mr. Luthmann also tried to pay a stripper $10,000 to claim that she had been raped in 2015 by the Staten Island district attorney, Michael E. McMahon, when he was running for the office.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Man Accused of Using Fake Facebook Pages to Sway Voters. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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