WASHINGTON -- Federal probation officials are investigating the activities of a southern California filmmaker convicted of financial crimes who has been linked to an anti-Islamic movie inflaming protests across the Middle East, a spokesman for the U.S. federal court system said Friday.
The probation department in California's central district is reviewing the case of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, who was previously convicted on bank fraud charges and was banned from using computers or the Internet as part of his sentence. The review is aimed at learning whether Nakoula violated the terms of his five-year probation.
Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the administrative office of the U.S. courts, confirmed Friday the review is under way. If the probation department determines Nakoula violated terms of his release, a judge could send him back to prison.
Federal authorities have identified Nakoula, a self-described Coptic Christian, as the key figure behind "Innocence of Muslims," a film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Middle East. A federal law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Thursday that authorities had connected Nakoula to a man using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile who claimed earlier to be writer and director of the film.
Violent protests set off by the film in Libya played a role in mob attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American officials. U.S. Embassy gates in Cairo were breached by protesters and demonstrations against American missions spread to Yemen on Thursday and on Friday to several other countries.
Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.
It could be difficult to establish a probation violation case against Nakoula. In the federal court system, the conditions of supervised release are geared toward the offense for which a defendant was found guilty and imprisoned.
In Nakoula's case, the offense was bank fraud. His no contest plea was to charges of setting up fraudulent bank accounts using stolen identities and Social Security numbers, depositing checks from those accounts into other phony accounts and then withdrawing the illicit funds from ATM machines.
While it was unclear from Redmond's statement which aspects of Nakoula's probation might have provoked authorities' interest, the filmmaker's use of a false identity and his access to the Internet through computers could be at issue, according to experts in cyber law and the federal probation system. Nakoula, who told The Associated Press that he was a manager for the film, was also under financial restrictions including requirements to provide authorities with records of all his bank and business accounts.
The probation order authorized in June 2010 by U.S. District Court Judge Christine A. Snyder warned Nakoula against using false identities. Nakoula was told not to "use, for any purpose or in any manner, any name other than his/her true legal name or names without the prior written approval of the Probation Officer."
Federal prosecutors had charged that Nakoula used multiple false identities in creating his fraudulent accounts. Several, Nicola Bacily and Erwin Salameh, were similar to the Sam Bacile pseudonym used to set up the YouTube account for the anti-Islamic film. Other fraudulent identities, ranging from Ahmed Hamdy and Thomas J. Tanas to P.J. Tobacco, were also used by Nakoula to set up the phony accounts, authorities charged.
Nakoula was also told by the judge that he could not have any access to the Internet "without the prior approval of the Probation officer." Nakoula was ordered to detail any online devices and cellphones to authorities and was told his devices would be monitored and subject to searches.
Jennifer Granick, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in online crimes, said that authorities might not have been aware of Nakoula's online activity even if monitoring devices had been placed on computers that he used. "That may be very hard for a probation officer to catch ahead of time."
Granick also noted that Nakoula's conviction for financial crimes might provide a basis for probation officials to review bank and other monetary records. "Somebody charged with a financial crime might receive some supervision categories where they might re-offend," she said.
Under "special conditions" attached to Nakoula's probation, he was limited to one checking account and told that all of his financial records had to be disclosed to authorities if requested.
Nakoula was arrested in June 2009, pleaded no contest to the bank fraud charges a year later and was released from federal prison in June 2011 after serving a 21-month prison term, according to federal records.
An initial report about the federal probation review appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
There are indications that "Innocence of Muslims" may have already been under way as a film project when Nakoula was arrested in 2009. A casting call for actors and crew for a film called "Desert Warrior" ran in Backstage magazine, based in Los Angeles and New York, in May and June 2009. The casting call described the film project as a "historical Arabian Desert adventure" and listed a "Sam Bassiel" as producer.
One of the Backstage notices also said that a California company called "Pharaoh Voice, Inc." was casting "Desert Warrior." California state records show that Pharaoh Voice was incorporated in September 2007 by a registering agent identified as "Youssef M. Basseley." The principal address for Pharaoh Voice in Hawaiian Gardens, a southern California community, is the same location where Nakoula lived between 1989 and 2008, according to California public records.
During an interview with AP, Nakoula denied that he was Sam Bacile, but acknowledged knowing him. Nakoula also described himself as the film's manager of logistics.