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Facebook fugitive ordered back to US to face fraud charges

The order, by a panel of three judges in Quito, means Paul Ceglia may face a trial with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the star prosecution witness.

world Updated: Feb 14, 2019 14:09 IST
Bob Van Voris
Bob Van Voris
Facebook,Facebook fugitive,Mark Zuckerberg
Paul Ceglia has spent four years on the run to avoid a US trial on charges he tried to cheat Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg out of half the company.(Reuters File Photo )

Paul Ceglia has spent four years on the run to avoid a US trial on charges he tried to cheat Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg out of half the company. Now he’s been ordered home.

Ecuador’s National Court of Justice on Wednesday upheld a November 15 extradition ruling requiring that Ceglia be returned to New York to face criminal charges for allegedly making a fraudulent, multibillion-dollar claim to the social media giant. Ceglia skipped his $250,000 bail in 2015 and eluded US law enforcement until he was arrested in August in a small Ecuadorian beach town.

The order, by a panel of three judges in Quito, means Ceglia may face a trial with Facebook CEO Zuckerberg as the star prosecution witness. The Ecuadorian judges rejected Ceglia’s claim that the country’s extradition treaty with the US doesn’t cover the crimes he’s accused of committing.

‘We are disappointed of course,’ Ceglia said in response to the ruling, according to Roberto Calderon, one of his Ecuadorian lawyers. ‘But we have made Ecuador our home and we will fight to stay here.’

Ecuador’s law allows President Lenin Moreno to deny the US extradition request despite Wednesday’s court ruling, said Calderon.

“I don’t think he’ll receive justice in the United States,’ Ceglia’s wife, Iasia Ceglia, said in a televised plea to Moreno before the decision. “It’s a huge corporation that is behind it, that has much power and much money. They can do anything they want. And I think he’ll end up in jail.”

Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa, granted asylum in 2012 to the country’s most notorious foreign fugitive, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Moreno’s government last year tightened the rules for Assange to remain in Ecuador’s embassy in London, including a requirement he clean up after his cat. Assange said at the time he believed Moreno, who has tried to repair relations with the US, was seeking to force him out in response to pressure from the US and UK.

Ceglia, 45, sued Facebook and Zuckerberg in 2010, claiming that a contract he signed with Zuckerberg in 2003 gave him 84 percent of the company that would grow into the world’s biggest social network. Ceglia later reduced the demand to half. Zuckerberg, who in 2003 was a freshman at Harvard University, has said he signed an unrelated contract to do website coding for Ceglia.

Ceglia was charged with wire fraud and mail fraud in 2012.

A federal judge in Buffalo threw out Ceglia’s claim in 2014 after a magistrate judge found “clear and convincing evidence” that Ceglia had forged the contract, destroyed evidence and created fake emails between himself and Zuckerberg to support his claim.

In March 2015, Ceglia removed an electronic ankle bracelet and fled his western New York home with his wife and two sons, who were then 10 and 11, and the family’s Jack Russell Terrier, Buddy. While on the lam in 2016, Ceglia claimed he had fled with his family after receiving an anonymous death threat.

With Buddy in tow, the family spent more than a year hiding out in Florida and in “hippie communes” in Georgia and Missouri, Ceglia said in an interview in Quito’s “El Inca” jail last year. Early in their odyssey, the Ceglias posed as an Amish family, he said. They later fled by ship from Texas to Columbia, then overland to Ecuador.

Each criminal charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Ceglia says his claim against Facebook is genuine and that he didn’t commit a crime.

“I needed to go to another country to get justice,” Ceglia said in the jailhouse interview.

While in Ecuador, the couple had a third son, now almost a year old. In his bid for asylum, Ceglia cited his relationship to the baby, a citizen of the nation by birth. One of Ceglia’s lawyers argued that Iasia Ceglia, who isn’t charged, could face charges of helping her husband flee if she returns to the U.S., potentially leaving the child without parents.

The case is US v. Ceglia, 12-cr-876, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

First Published: Feb 14, 2019 14:09 IST