A Michigan man alleged to have spent the last decade targeting Missourians is now facing criminal charges for his latest scheme, which involved sending fake tax forms and equally fake collection notices to dozens of school superintendents, elected officials and even the motherflippin' governor
, Jay Nixon,
Talk about ambition.
Obviously, the plan backfired for its creator. Earlier this week, Jeffrey Kowalski, 34, was charged with separate felony and misdemeanor counts for deceptive business practices. He was also charged with two misdemeanors for theft under $500 and identity theft.
The charges cap a lengthy game of cat and mouse played between Kowalski and the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
In 2002, Kowalski was "taking a break" from his college studies while living in Hemlock, Michigan. According to an article in Education Week
, he used the free time to comb through public records, which he then used to build a database of information on thousands of U.S. school districts. He put his findings on his website, StarProse.com.
Then things got weird. In October 2004
, Kowalski sent several hundred emails to school superintendents all over Missouri. (The emails also found their way to inboxes in California, Massachusetts and Texas.) The missives arrived with the subject line "Open Records Request." Superintendents were asked to reply with their salary, date of birth, race, and gender. While the salaries of superintendents (like all public officials) are indeed public record, the other items were (and are) decidedly private.
The next waves of emails, send eight days later, grabbed the attention of then-Attorney General Jay Nixon. The emails read, in part:
Our company would like you to provide us with your sexual orientation. This information will be used to help parents when choosing a school for their children. We will be listing your sexual orientation as homosexual by default. If this is not your sexual orientation, please respond to this electronic mail message so we can update accordingly.
Incredibly, Kowalski's privacy-invading request was fulfilled by fifteen to twenty of the recipients. However, only days later Kowalski was hit with a lawsuit from Nixon
. It accused Kowalski of violating Missouri's anti-spam law.
Ultimately, a circuit judge ordered Kowalski to stop sending misleading "Open Records Requests" and, for good measure, explicitly barred him from collecting or publishing any information on the sexual orientation of a school or government employee.
But the 2004 incident was only the beginning. Having drawn the ire of Nixon's successor, Chris Koster, Kowalski actually went on the offensive and sued the Missouri Attorney General in 2011. Koster, the suit alleged, had publicly declared his intent to prosecute Kowalski based on the "alleged presence" of sexual orientation information of Missouri school personnel on StarProse.com. Kowalski asked the court to protect him from Koster's alleged threats. Instead, the court quickly dismissed the lawsuit.
And that brings us to the present, with a warrant out for Kowalski's arrest and an extradition order to bring the scammer to Missouri.
This time around, Kowalski's alleged crimes constitute a somewhat different flavor of privacy invasion. According to an investigator's probable cause statement, Kowalski emailed nine Missouri school superintendents in January, requesting they fill out a W-9 tax form — which would include tidbits like the recipient's social security number — in order receive payments from the StarProse Corporation.
At least two superintendents received emails containing 1099 forms that Kowalski had apparently filled out by hand. The forms indicated that the recipients had been paid $600 and $1,200, respectively, by Kowalski's company in 2015.
The alleged fraud didn't stop there. In March, Kowalski sent collections notices — for a measly $50! — to more than 70 Missourians. The list included more than 50 state legislators, an associate circuit judge and, in a delicious irony, Governor Jay Nixon, the very same former-Attorney General who tangled with Kowalski in 2004.
Along with the criminal charges, Koster filed a civil lawsuit against Kowalski this week. The suit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions, restitution, and civil penalties against StarProse Corporation and Kowalski.
“This office will not stand by while unscrupulous individuals harass Missourians by trying to collect fraudulent debt or trick them into releasing private information,” Koster said in a press release. “Mr. Kowalski is up to his old tricks, and we’re going to court to stop him.”
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com