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A wooden gavel and block is seen inside the Senate Hart Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.

A wooden gavel and block is seen inside the Senate Hart Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

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(Tribune News Service) — After a Texas man tried to fraudulently sell 50 million N95 face masks to the Australian government, officials say he has been sentenced to federal prison.

Authorities say 56-year-old Arael Doolittle, of Houston, didn’t have any masks when he and his co-defendant tried selling them for $5.50 each — plus “additional fees and mark-ups” by a middleman — for $317 million as COVID-19 swept across the world in a global outbreak.

Doolittle pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud July 27, 2021, records show, and was sentenced to 4.5 years in federal prison on Feb. 16.

“Judge (Lynn) Hughes noted even though there was no actual financial loss in this case, there are still costs associated with cases like this that victims of frauds suffer,” a news release from the Southern District of Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office says.

The defense attorney representing Doolittle declined to comment.

As the masks that offered the best protection against the coronavirus were in short supply, officials say Doolittle, his partner and their middleman began looking for buyers in March 2020.

By March 30, their broker connected with representatives of a foreign government — later identified as Australia — about buying 50 million N95 masks.

“According to the terms of the purchase order, no money was to be released to the seller until after the buyer’s inspection team had an opportunity to inspect the product in Houston, Texas,” records say.

Doolittle later said the government would have to pay a 50% deposit before officials could inspect the masks, according to court records. When the middleman said they would not pay until after inspecting the masks, Doolittle said the 50 million masks “were in different locations and it would cost a lot of money to transfer all of the masks to one location for an inspection.”

All parties agreed the foreign government would pay $100,000 into an escrow account, and Doolittle’s team could keep the $100,000 to cover the relocation if the deal fell through, authorities said.

On April 2, a “proof of products” video that Doolittle had emailed to his partner, which was then forwarded to the middleman, showed stacked boxes of N95 masks, records say. But the lot number visible on some of the visible masks showed they were manufactured in 2006, meaning they would have “exceeded their shelf life.”

Before a representative of the Australian government could wire the $100,000 into the escrow account, officials say the U.S. Secret Service stopped the sale of non-existent masks.

This sentencing is in addition to 4.5 years in prison Doolittle was ordered to serve in connection to soliciting victims to “invest in a petroleum trading company” — a $1,935,613.95 fraud scheme that he then used to fund an unrelated business and his personal expenses, officials say.

With both sentences, Doolittle will serve nine years in prison.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer.

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