Two men tried to sell $317 million in N95 masks to a foreign government. The masks didn’t exist, DOJ says.

Two Houston men are facing federal charges for trying to sell 50 million nonexistent N95 face masks to a foreign government, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

A nurse holds an N95 mask. (Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

Paschal Ngozi Eleanya, 46, and Arael Doolittle, 55, allegedly attempted to bilk the foreign government, which the Justice Department did not name, out of more than $317 million. In their scheme, they negotiated a sales price for the phantom masks that was five times the asking price set by manufacturer 3M, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in the South District of Texas.

The foreign government allegedly wired money to purchase the masks, but the federal government stopped the transaction before it could be completed, denying Eleanya and Doolittle of the $275 million they expected to pocket, according to federal prosecutors. The remaining money would have gone to their “broker” and the foreign government’s own representatives, according to Reuters.

A federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment for the men on Nov. 19 that included conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud.

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Doolittle was taken into custody the next day and made his first appearance before a judge Monday. An arraignment and detention hearing is schedule for Wednesday, according to federal prosecutors.

Eleanya turned himself in to authorities Tuesday and was expected to make his first appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam S. Sheldon later in the day.

If convicted, Doolittle and Eleanya each face up to five years in prison for conspiracy and up to 20 years in prison for each of the two counts of wire fraud. Each charge also carries a possible maximum fine of $250,000.

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Ryan K. Patrick, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said Tuesday that his coronavirus “fraud point person has been investigating this case for months. Glad to finally see it come together.”

“PPE fraud and price gouging is still a thing. Report it when you see it,” he added.

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