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Arrest ends businessman's quest for slice of Facebook

The 'mysterious' Irish-American could face a lengthy jail term if convicted of fraud, says Donal Lynch

In 2010, when Irish-American Paul Ceglia seemed poised to claim a lucrative slice of the Facebook pie, lawyers flocked to him. There seemed to be a lot of play for: The Winklevoss twins, contemporaries of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, had just won a $64m (€50.4m) settlement against the Facebook founder (a battle dramatised in the movie The Social Network).

A potential big payday for Ceglia, who had known Zuckerberg in the early 2000s, seemed nigh. In the last 10 days, however, that dream ended for good. Over a week ago Federal agents arrested Ceglia in upstate New York charging him with a "multi-billion dollar scheme" to defraud Facebook.

The arrest brings to a close a bizarre saga, which at one point saw the 39-year-old Ceglia "escaping" to his ancestral home in Corofin, Co Galway, because of what he saw as intimidation by the media in New York. Ireland seemed a suitable hideaway: Ceglia is the son of Vera Keaveney, whose parents are from Corofin; and Cairmen Ceglia, an Italian who worked as a barber in Galway city in the Eighties. He is the grandson of the late Nora and Andrew Keaveney who ran the Ranch House dance hall on the N17 some decades ago.

Ceglia grew up in Buffalo, in upstate New York, where one of the local newspapers described him as "mysterious". It noted that for a man who credited himself with founding the most successful online social network in the world, he was never a particularly social animal. Of the 113 high school graduates only Ceglia seemed absent from the high school yearbook -- the old-fashioned device teens used before the advent of Facebook.

The Buffalo News spoke to a man named Conklin, who in 2008 was awarded a $3,000 judgement against Ceglia after the latter tried to sell him land he did not own. The paper also interviewed disgruntled former customers of his wood pellet business.

But it was his clashes with the Facebook founder that propelled him into international headlines. It's been suggested that everyone who had a coffee with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard would go on to claim some sort of hand in Facebook's creation. Ceglia didn't attend the college but he hired Zuckerberg in 2003 to do work for Streetfax, a website that posted photographs of traffic intersections for use in the insurance industry.

Ceglia claimed that the deal also covered work on a fledgling site called The Face Book. Zuckerberg always insisted his work for Streetfax was not at all related to Facebook, which was only conceived in 2004. But in 2010 Ceglia filed a claim for a stake in the firm.

Facebook, for its part, contended that Ceglia was a "scam artist". Others remained sceptical too. Ceglia's uncle, Frank Keaveney, in Tuam, Co Galway, told the Connacht Tribune that even if the lawsuit was successful he "wasn't holding out for a major windfall" from his nephew: "I certainly won't be sitting out on the front porch downing tequilas and waiting for a cheque to arrive in the post."

Authorities in New York charged the Irish-American over a week ago. Ceglia "doctored, fabricated and destroyed evidence to support his false claim", according to a statement from the US Attorney's Office in New York City. They contend that there was a contract between Zuckerberg and Ceglia but the one they discovered on Ceglia's hard drive "does not refer to Facebook in any fashion".

A search of email servers at Harvard University did not turn up alleged emails that Ceglia submitted as evidence. He was charged with wire fraud and mail fraud.

Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said: "Ceglia's alleged conduct not only constitutes a massive fraud attempt but also an attempted corruption of our legal system through the manufacture of evidence. Dressing up a fraud as a lawsuit does not immunise you from prosecution."

The Irish-American faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

Sunday Independent