Facebook Faceoff

In Which We Stood in the Elevator With Paul Ceglia

His public defender is none too keen on Mr. Ceglia speaking to the press, either.
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Mr. Ceglia, photogs scurrying along beside.

Earlier today, (alleged!) Facebook fraudster Paul Ceglia appeared at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse downtown and pleaded not guilty to federal criminal charges of wire and mail fraud. It was his first appearance in the wake of yesterday’s indictment.

Always something of a riddle, Mr. Ceglia has become even more ghostly of late. Despite his ongoing case against Facebook, he’s kept a low profile. He spent a fair bit of time in Ireland. But there he was this afternoon, in the flesh, in a mahogany-paneled courtroom. He even put on a suit! (The prospect of decades in federal prison will inspire even the sloppiest of dressers to don a tie.) The effect was only somewhat spoiled by the anorak draped over the back of his chair.

Out of “an abundance of caution,” Judge Arthur Carter opened by walking Mr. Ceglia through the accusations against him, pausing each time to make sure the defendant followed. It was nothing new, but the word “fraud” really hits with a thud when you’re actually sitting in an IRL courtroom.

Facebook has long held that Mr. Ceglia’s claims were, not to put to fine a point on it, so much upcountry bullshit. With the decision to arrest Mr. Ceglia, the federal government seems to have sided with Team Facebook. The U.S. Attorney’s office alleges that the upstate entrepreneur both doctored an old contract with Mr. Zuckerberg and tampered with email to bolster his case.

Mr. Ceglia, for his part, denies it all and continues to press forward with his civil suit.

Not present: Dean Boland, the attorney who just petitioned to be removed from Mr. Ceglia’s lawsuit against Facebook. Also absent: The numerous other lawyers who’ve done a stint on the civil case. Seated by Mr. Ceglia’s side was David Patton, the executive director and attorney-in-chief of the Federal Defenders of New York.

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Mr. Ceglia on his way out.

After a formal back and forth, it was onto the discussion of discovery–i.e., the fine points of how to handle the transfer of evidence, which is the kind of thing that usually gets cut from Law & Order. There seemed to be a fair bit of concern over the proper handling of the original, disputed contract, which the judge in the civil suit has yet to actually rule a fake. (Sam Waterston, call your office.) Mr. Patton also noted that he’d be requesting a change of venue, though he didn’t elaborate on his reasons and wouldn’t respond to a question afterward about where he wanted the trial relocated.

When the hearing concluded, Mr. Ceglia zipped up his North Face and was ushered to the elevators by Mr. Patton, a line of notebook-clutching reporters trailing behind like ducklings.

As our motley crew waited for the elevators, a Bloomberg News reporter who’d previously interviewed Mr. Ceglia stepped up to say hi, but Mr. Patton quickly shut down any attempts to solicit a statement or answers to any of this case’s many, many questions.

“I just wanted to say hi!” the reporter parried. “Hi is okay,” Mr. Patton allowed, sounding only slightly grudging.

We all piled into elevator, Betabeat standing next to Mr. Ceglia, who gives off a distinct vibe of harmlessness. After a moment, he looked up at the reporter and told him he almost hadn’t recognized him. “You look more distinguished,” he said, with a smile that only seemed sly if you really thought about it.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com