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Late one night in December 2017, Richard Luthmann and his wife settled into their Staten Island living room to watch a movie. Lately, Luthmann, a 38-year-old attorney, had been staying up all hours of the night, stoked by scotch and cocaine, pounding out legal briefs and public-relations work. But that night, Luthmann decided to watch Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary about the infamous strategist whose career Donald Trump had revived. Luthmann chose the film not only because he was friends with one of its producers, local political activist Frank Morano, but also because Luthmann considered himself something of a dirty trickster.
For the better part of the previous two years, Luthmann had been a pariah of Staten Island’s political scene. Using social media and spurious court filings, he had targeted local politicians of all stripes. He created fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that impersonated political candidates and power brokers, chumming for voter outrage — like the page he created for a state-assembly candidate on the South Shore, arguably the city’s most conservative district, that read, “Mayor Bill de Blasio is right! We need a homeless shelter in Annadale!” Or the page he created for a city councilwoman, bragging about the “SRO Welfare Hotel full of Criminals and Drug Addicts” she planned to develop.
“I’m not a likeable guy, I know that. Do I really care? Not at all,” Luthmann told me. “I was the Roger Stone of Staten Island. I was behind every campaign.”
To the discerning voter, Luthmann’s fake pages might have read as parody. But the 2016 election had shone a light on the destructive role social media could play in politics, and many Americans were demanding consequences. By the time Luthmann sat down to watch Get Me Roger Stone, the film’s titular figure was under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Luthmann himself had wreaked enough havoc on Staten Island to inspire a string of investigative stories by local news outlet NY1. To Luthmann, the stories had been politically motivated hit jobs and, in response, he had filed a defamation suit against NY1, its reporter, and her sources — but not before a Richmond County judge, at the Staten Island district attorney’s request, had appointed a special prosecutor to look into Luthmann’s fake accounts.
Still, as Luthmann’s eyes grew heavy in front of the television, he was at ease, confident enough in his actions and understanding of the law to know that there was no way a special prosecutor’s investigation could lead to an indictment. He fell into a deep sleep, unaware that federal investigators had been looking into more than his fake accounts or that he would soon be awoken by FBI agents pounding on his door. He certainly didn’t know that he would be the first person in the country to be indicted for impersonating politicians on social media.
“Legally, you can deploy social media as long as you’re going after someone who is a public figure. You have a First Amendment protection,” Luthmann said. “At least that’s what I thought.”
Before he was a pariah, Luthmann was a rising star on Staten Island. He grew up in Eltingville on the South Shore, where he was raised mostly by his mother, a real-estate broker. Luthmann was drawn to politics as a kid, but he never won a race for class office. “I didn’t learn how to do dirty tricks then, so I had a distinct disadvantage,” he told me.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University before attending New York Law School in Tribeca, commuting every day on the ferry from his childhood home.
“It was obvious from the first time I saw him speak in one of our classes that he was very brilliant,” said Olivier Vallez, a business consultant and classmate of Luthmann’s at New York Law School. “He had been a philosophy major at Columbia, and a lot of the core classes in law school are theory based. So he would get into debates in the middle of a class of 150 students, quote Nietzsche, and have these deep philosophical arguments that created a love-hate relationship with professors.”
After law school, Luthmann received a master of laws degree from the University of Miami and spent a few years in South Florida working for a group of international banks and insurance companies headquartered in the Bahamas. In 2009, Luthmann returned to Staten Island and eventually opened his own practice above a Thai restaurant on Victory Boulevard.
Very quickly, Luthmann developed a reputation as an eccentric, theatrical, and occasionally effective litigator. If his courtroom behavior didn’t leave an impression, his appearance — always adorned with colorful bow ties and cartoonish glasses — did. Luthmann’s greatest skill, though, was his ability to find cases that generated local media attention. When the Department of Education suspended the Susan Wagner High School football team’s season because of a hazing investigation, Luthmann took the case pro bono and got a judge to lift the ban. He went to court for a 10-year-old Little Leaguer who had been ruled ineligible for the county all-star team. A year later, Luthmann represented Tod “Doc” Mishler, an 80-year-old cowboy with a handlebar mustache who was charged with animal cruelty after he rode his horse over the Outerbridge Crossing. (Mishler pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.) Luthmann sued the NYPD on behalf of the scions of Dell’s Maraschino Cherries after their father killed himself in the middle of a raid on the company’s cherry factory–marijuana farm.
In court, Luthmann filed sensational briefs the way middle-school troublemakers huck paper airplanes, outlining bizarre conspiracies and baselessly accusing adverse litigants of having mob connections to divert attention from his own tardiness. In 2014, creditors sued Luthmann, accusing him of helping one of his clients hide assets; in response, Luthmann countersued the creditors and their attorney. Citing an arcane statute of New York State law, Luthmann requested trial by combat. Accompanying his request was a 29-frame slideshow detailing the history of the practice laced with references to Game of Thrones. Both cases were eventually settled without bloodshed but not before Luthmann appeared on the front page of the New York Post holding a broadsword and a shield (a copy of which Luthmann began attaching to his email signature) and on a Fox & Friends segment.
“It was surreal, like nothing I’d ever seen,” said Richard Chusid, the attorney Luthmann challenged to a duel. “He was a defendant in that case, and he was able to shift the focus from the underlying conduct that was alleged to all of this trial-by-combat stuff and the press went crazy for it. It was brilliant.”
As Luthmann’s prominence grew, so did his involvement in local politics. He claimed to be a moderate Democrat, but he didn’t have any particularly strong convictions on policy issues. Luthmann was captivated by the pageantry, and it didn’t take long for him to insinuate himself into Staten Island’s relatively small political scene. He had been a Cub Scout with Joe Borelli, the island’s Trump-cheering city councilmember, and he served as general counsel to the Staten Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 2012, the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation honored him as one of its 20 under 40. A few years later, a marketing firm crowned him King of Staten Island.
“He was Mr. Kiwanis, Mr. Charity. He would give to this cause and that cause and every politician,” said George Passariello, a Staten Island public-relations consultant who said he knew Luthmann because “he was friends with my sister’s husband’s nephew.”
Luthmann became a staple at fundraisers, giving thousands of dollars to city, state, and national candidates across the ideological spectrum. Some found his act charming, but others recognized something unsettling, perhaps even menacing, about him.
“The last memory I have of him, I was going to the South Beach Civic Association picnic on the boardwalk, and he started squirting me with a Super Soaker gun,” said Republican congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis, who was a member of the state assembly at the time. “You have a bunch of seniors at this picnic, and all of a sudden this guy comes out with a Super Soaker gun squirting the local assembly member. It was a very odd situation.”
Luthmann often coupled his underhanded tactics with outright bullying, misogyny, and racism. He made Photoshopped images of female candidates performing sex acts and bragged that he had once convinced the top lawyer for the New York City Board of Elections that he had referred to him as a “jurat,” when he had called him a “Jew-rat.” He created a fake Facebook page for Malliotakis and in 2017 chided her on his own page with a cherished Trump quote: “A person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.”
Luthmann himself had once run for office. In 2013, at 33 years old, Luthmann threw his hat into the ring for the Democratic primary for Staten Island borough president. He was tolerated at first, but the party began to distance itself after he sent an email questioning the physical fitness of his primary opponent, a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher who had lost a leg to diabetes. Ultimately, Luthmann was forced to withdraw from the race after Kevin Elkins, the executive director of the Democratic Committee of Richmond County at the time, challenged the veracity of hundreds of signatures on Luthmann’s nominating petition.
“At that point, we were warning people: ‘Just because he looks like a clown doesn’t mean he’s harmless,’” said Elkins. “But some people still thought he was entertaining.”
Luthmann considered himself a Young Turk challenging the Democratic Establishment, and the party’s rejection only deepened his suspicions. Before, Luthmann’s political ambitions had been driven by notoriety; now they were animated by revenge. He began a years-long campaign to undermine the local Democratic Party. Inspired by a news story he had read about Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies using social media to influence voters, he created @realjohngulino, a Twitter account that mocked the chair of the party, John Gulino, and a series of fake Facebook pages to harass and impersonate Elkins. The day after 75-year-old Stuart Brenker, a friend of Gulino’s, refused to shake Luthmann’s hand at a fundraiser, Brenker started getting calls from friends who said they had seen Brenker spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric on Facebook. Brenker immediately suspected that Luthmann was behind the fake account and enlisted his son-in-law to contact Facebook to try to get the posts taken down. The company never responded, Brenker said.
Luthmann also went after the party in the courtroom. After Michael Grimm’s congressional seat opened up in 2015, Luthmann encouraged his own driver, Lawrence Gilder, who is Black, to file a $20 million discrimination suit against Gulino and the party for denying Gilder an opportunity to run. Luthmann represented Gilder, alleging in court that Gulino had refused to meet with him. But to Gulino — and anyone familiar with Luthmann’s reputation — the lawsuit was part of Luthmann’s effort to sabotage the Democratic Party. “We were of the view that it was a stunt,” Gulino’s attorney, Andrew Hoffman, said. (Gilder did not return requests for comment.)
Luthmann maintained that Gilder genuinely wanted to run on a marijuana-reform platform with the slogan “Free the Weed,” but he undercut himself almost in the same breath. “There was definitely a dirty-trick element to it,” Luthmann told me. “It’s no different than what Roger Stone did with Trump back in 2000 to get rid of Pat Buchanan, who was running on the Reform Party.”
A federal judge dismissed Gilder’s lawsuit, but once again Luthmann used the case to gin up media attention. “I was passed up for Rep. Grimm’s seat because I’m black: lawsuit,” read a Post headline. In one filing, Luthmann claimed he feared for his own life because two “low-level Colombo crime family associates” were threatening him on behalf of Gulino. “Mobsters may be after him, lawyer alleges, citing suit against Dem leader,” read the ensuing headline in the Staten Island Advance.
In 2015, Luthmann waged an aggressive campaign against Michael McMahon, the Democratic candidate for Staten Island district attorney. As a former city councilmember and congressman, McMahon epitomized the sort of Establishment politics Luthmann despised. Luthmann created a fake Facebook page that copied all of the candidate’s real posts to trick voters into thinking it was McMahon’s real page. Once he had tricked enough people into following the page, he changed its header to “Tax Hike Mike” and launched an assault on McMahon. Luthmann justified much of his online behavior by claiming that he essentially lied with the truth — as a city councilmember, McMahon had voted in favor of tax hikes, and therefore it was perfectly acceptable to call McMahon “Tax Hike Mike.”
“From Plato to Machiavelli to Hannah Arendt, the practice of politics has never been tied to truth,” Luthmann once wrote on Facebook.
While Luthmann was attacking McMahon, a new force emerged in American politics that seemed to align perfectly with Luthmann’s ethos. Not only was Donald Trump an outsider who had been shunned by the political Establishment, he was a no-holds-barred showman. Luthmann went all in for Trump. He added a MAGA hat to his splashy wardrobe and created the Facebook pages “Staten Islanders for Trump,” “Democrats for Trump,” and “Blacks for Trump.”
For years, Luthmann had remained a Democrat almost out of spite, but in the run-up to the 2016 election, he joined the now-defunct New York State Reform Party. The party’s vice-chair at the time was John Tabacco, a fellow Staten Islander and conservative talk-show host, and it was he who brought Luthmann to Stone’s Upper East Side apartment. There, surrounded by Stone’s collection of conservative curios, Luthmann and Stone discussed Luthmann’s plan to encourage Reform Party members to register themselves as poll watchers. After that meeting, Luthmann said Stone had asked him for advice in a landlord-tenant dispute. (Stone and Tabacco did not respond to requests for comment.)
Days before the 2016 election, Stone reached out again to see if Luthmann would represent Mark Gallagher, a Trump supporter who had been expelled from the Today show audience for wearing a T-shirt with the word rape above a picture of Bill Clinton. The stunt had been orchestrated by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, according to Gallagher, but Stone was promoting his book The Clintons’ War on Women at the time. Luthmann agreed to represent Gallagher and promptly filed a $53 million lawsuit against NBC. The complaint compared NBC security to Hitler’s SS, and Luthmann promoted the case on Jones’s Infowars website. “I’m a Trump supporter and NBC’s ‘goon squad’ beat me up,” read the Post’s headline this time. (The case went nowhere.)
On Election Night 2016, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s chief foreign correspondent reported from Luthmann’s watch party (which doubled as his 38th-birthday celebration) to show the world what an average Trump voter in America looked like. Trump’s ascension validated Luthmann’s political principles, noxious as they were, and Luthmann’s reverence for Trump and Stone only grew. “I am not a Republican or a Reaganite. I am a Trumpian, and I play by a different set of rules,” Luthmann wrote on Facebook. “My political Bible was written by Roger Stone. I am a bear with the taste of blood in my mouth. I am a man-eater.”
In 2016, Luthmann created a fake Facebook account for Janine Materna, a candidate in the Republican primary for the state-assembly seat representing Staten Island’s South Shore. Materna was running against Luthmann’s friend Ron Castorina, Jr. As the September primary drew near, one of Materna’s campaign volunteers noticed the imitation account — it had the same image as the one on Materna’s own profile and regularly “checked in” at Materna’s campaign headquarters. An early post on the copycat page showed a 2014 picture of Materna with Mayor de Blasio at Staten Island’s annual Groundhog Day event (the day the mayor accidentally dropped the groundhog, named Charlotte, which later died from its injuries). Below the picture, the caption read, “We will have a conversation about Housing Projects on the South Shore.” Materna was mortified.
“It was completely false,” Materna said recently. “Although I have tremendous sympathy for people who are homeless, a shelter was not something that I had envisioned on the South Shore.”
There was a photo of Materna with former attorney general Eric Holder, captioned “Black Lives Matter,” below which someone had commented, “Sorry hun you lost my vote.” Another post featured a photo of Materna’s car parked in a handicap spot. “To heck with the cripples and retards. I will park where I want!” read the caption. (Materna said her campaign had sole usage rights to the parking lot.) Anytime Materna or her supporters posted a comment saying the page was fake, Luthmann would delete it. He bought ads so more South Shore residents would see the phony page. Materna contacted Facebook multiple times to have the page taken down (the company never responded) and filed a complaint with the NYPD, saying she feared for her safety (it went nowhere).
“It reached thousands of people,” Materna said. “It looked exactly like me. It was my picture. It was my name. It was me, and there was nothing that could be done.”
Luthmann’s 2017 indictment named five victims, but Luthmann told me this represented “a mere fraction” of his stable of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts. But as much as Luthmann considered himself a “dirty trickster,” he could just as easily have called himself a troll, a bully, or a shitposter. There’s little evidence to suggest that he significantly influenced the outcome of any race. McMahon won his handily, and Materna lost her race to Castorina by more than 1,200 votes, a wide margin by state-assembly standards and far more votes than a fake Facebook page can claim credit for.
But the reputational damage done by Luthmann’s smear campaigns was potentially worse than the political blows he had tried to inflict. “These posts, especially that one about the handicap spot, caused me significant harm in terms of online threats,” Materna said. “I didn’t want to be a textbook case where someone’s asking for help and then the next minute they get shot in the head.”
In August 2017, NY1 reporter Amanda Farinacci published a series of stories based on Facebook messages leaked from Luthmann’s personal account that revealed him to be the administrator of many of the fake accounts that had been dogging Staten Island candidates. Farinacci’s reporting spurred Staten Island district attorney McMahon to sign an order assigning a special prosecutor to investigate Luthmann (as a victim in the case, McMahon’s office couldn’t investigate).
But while the special prosecutor was investigating Luthmann for his social-media malfeasance, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York were investigating him for an entirely different scheme. On the morning of December 15, 2017, FBI agents arrested Luthmann at his house and charged him in an 11-count indictment that included fraud, kidnapping, and extortion. It alleged that in 2015, Luthmann and two associates had created a business that contracted with Chinese companies to send container loads of recyclable scrap metal to China. Once they had the contracts, Luthmann and his co-conspirators instead sent containers full of cheap filler and concrete, not recyclable metals. The nominal president of the company was a destitute man who regularly bummed cigarettes outside Luthmann’s law office, and Luthmann allegedly claimed to recruit someone connected to the Luchese crime family to provide muscle. (Luthmann denies any connection to organized-crime figures.) According to court documents, Luthmann asked his co-conspirators to refer to him as Saul, a reference to Saul Goodman, the corruptible attorney on the show Breaking Bad.
Although the federal case was not connected to the Staten Island special prosecutor’s case, filings in the federal case exposed just how deranged Luthmann’s political machinations had been. According to one of the FBI’s confidential sources, Luthmann had once tried to pay an exotic dancer to say she had been raped by McMahon. He had also talked about hiring people to beat up or kill Elkins, the former executive director of the Staten Island Democratic Party who had spoiled Luthmann’s bid for borough president in 2013. For Materna, Luthmann’s federal indictment and the sordid details it unearthed were proof that his online behavior really had been a warning sign.
“It made me feel that I did the right thing in terms of going to the police and making sure that this person was put away or got the help that he needed,” said Materna, who now has an order of protection against Luthmann. “He is a danger to society.”
In March 2019, Luthmann pleaded guilty in federal court to wire fraud and extortion. At his sentencing hearing, he blamed his behavior on an unstable marriage and said that, since his arrest at the end of 2017, he had been diagnosed as bipolar. He was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Meanwhile, he was facing the special prosecutor’s investigation. In August 2018, a year after NY1 published Farinacci’s stories, Special Prosecutor Eric Nelson presented his case before a grand jury, which returned a 17-count indictment. Last October, rather than risk a state-prison sentence after completing his federal sentence, Luthmann pleaded guilty to three felony counts of falsifying business records. In addition to these, he had been charged with identity theft, criminal impersonation, stalking, and election-law violations. By most accounts, Luthmann seems to have been the first person in the country to be indicted explicitly for impersonating politicians on social media.
“There really was no precedent,” Nelson told me. “I conducted a search, and the only state where I found something comparable with the use of social media — and it wasn’t in a political context — was in Texas.” That case involved 12- and 13-year-old girls who were arrested for impersonating a classmate on Facebook.
Prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases that run the risk of raising First Amendment issues. Had Luthmann fought the charges, his case might have been a free-speech flash point. Instead, his plea was a blip in the news, a last-gasp reminder of toxic Trump-era politics that so many people were eager to leave behind.
“Luthmann had a remarkably good defense,” said Ronald Kuby, a prominent civil-rights advocate who defended Raphael Golb, the first person in New York to be tried for social-media impersonation. “This was constitutionally protected satirical speech. It followed a long tradition of literary impersonation going back to the Founders. As odious and despicable and horrifying as Luthmann is, he should not stand as a precedent for criminalizing basic constitutionally protected activities engaged in by millions of people around the country.”
In conversation, Luthmann claimed to be a victim of First Amendment infringement. He often compared himself to Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who had satirized Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, but a better comparison may be with “Devin Nunes’ cow” (@DevinCow), the Twitter parody account that gained attention when the California congressman tried to sue it. Others say that there is a clear difference between parody and impersonation and that the charges against Luthmann were a reasonable check of dangerous behavior.
“Some might say we need to protect the right to very deadpan humor. But I’m not sure why we should want to preserve the right to play dirty tricks, especially if it’s something that damages people’s reputation through deceiving voters,” said Eugene Volokh, an expert on the First Amendment and a professor at the UCLA School of Law.
Luthmann’s time in prison was harrowing. He was being held in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center during the 2019 blackout, he spent two months in the special-housing unit, separated from other inmates, and he has weathered a pandemic in which prisoners were at least four times as likely to contract COVID-19 than the general public. (On the plus side, he said he did get to talk politics with Anthony Weiner at FMC Devens.)
“I’m not the same guy I was when Trump came down the golden escalator. I’m broken and broke,” Luthmann wrote to me.
Like Trump, Luthmann now resides in Florida. In late April, the Bureau of Prisons released him to a halfway house, where he’ll stay until his full release this summer, when he’ll move in with his mother in Collier County. Also like Trump, Luthmann remains convinced that he’s the victim of a Democratic conspiracy. As part of his supervised release, he is forbidden from writing “threatening letters,” though he seems confused by what that actually means. “The language is ambiguous,” he wrote in an email, wondering if he would get in trouble for pitting competing job offers against each other. But Luthmann knows there’s little chance he’ll have two job offers. A convicted felon, he no longer has a law license, and he’s unsure if anyone will hire him to do political work, even in Florida.
“The only way that I could ever think that I would get back to politics was if I get a pardon from the president,” Luthmann told me, his hope perhaps buoyed by Trump’s pardon of Stone. “It’s probably not going to be from this president. It will have to be from Trump in 2024.”