By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department brought its first criminal case connected to the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday against a Southern California man who tried to solicit investment in a company he claimed had developed a COVID-19 cure.
Keith Lawrence Middlebrook, 53, was charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles with one count of attempted wire fraud.
Middlebrook "claimed to have personally developed a 'patent-pending cure' and a treatment that prevents coronavirus infection," the Justice Department said in a statement.
He was arrested after an undercover agent posed as an investor during a meeting where Middlebrook delivered the pills that he claimed would prevent people from developing the virus.
As part of the scheme, the department said, he also falsely claimed that former Los Angeles basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson was a board member of the company, Quantum Prevention CV Inc.
On his Instagram page, prosecutors said, Middlebrook showed viewers a syringe with a clear liquid.
"Yes I have developed the cure for coronavirus COVID-19," he is quoted as saying in the department's release. "After 6 weeks of intense focus and development (and very little sleep). I am currently going into mass production."
The department added that about 2 million viewers have seen his videos on YouTube and Instagram.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California said Middlebrook does not yet have an attorney and will appear in federal court on Thursday.
The case against Middlebrook comes after Attorney General William Barr this month ordered all U.S. Attorney offices to prioritize investigations into coronavirus scams, such as the peddling of fake cures, investment schemes and Medicare fraud.
In a memo, issued on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said tips had already started pouring in.
The memo also said that anyone who tries to threaten people with exposure to the virus could be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws, noting that COVID-19 meets the definition of a "biological agent."
The Justice Department announced its first civil coronavirus-related case on Sunday, saying it had closed down a website selling non-existent vaccines.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Eric Beech. Editing by Gerry Doyle)