By Brecken Branstrator

New York--The president of a New York City-headquartered sapphire company has pleaded guilty to one count of forging a federal judge’s signature, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.

According to a federal complaint, between February 2014 and February 2017, Michael Arnstein of The Natural Sapphire Company submitted counterfeit federal court orders to Google in an effort to get websites that had negative posts about his business de-indexed from the internet search engine’s results.

The actions for which Arnstein pleaded guilty stem from a 2011 dispute with a web design and software development company. 

In July 2011, The Natural Sapphire Company filed a lawsuit against Mumbai-based Transpacific Software and its founder, Prashant Telang, for cybersquatting and defamation.

It had hired Telang to design its website and purchase a number of domain names for it, but The Natural Sapphire Company terminated that relationship in early 2011 due to Telang’s alleged “failure to cooperate and to perform his duties as required,” court documents state, and Arnstein said that fake reviews about his business had been posted online as a result of this dispute.

Following the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan of the U.S. District Court in New York ordered that at least 54 fake reviews posted on a number of review and consumer advocacy websites be removed.

When fake reviews continued to pop up after this order was entered, the criminal complaint filed against Arnstein states that he used that legitimate court order to forge Judge Nathan’s signature on more than 10 counterfeit orders to ultimately force the removal of additional reviews.

The counterfeit orders, which appeared to be valid, were sent to Google, requesting that the search engine de-index the websites containing the purportedly defamatory information. He was successful with a number of these counterfeit orders, the Department of Justice said.

Arnstein originally faced three charges from federal prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to one with the intent, he told National Jeweler on Wednesday, of bringing the case to a close.

Arnstein is scheduled for sentencing by U.S. District Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. on Jan. 16.

He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

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