It’s a scandal rocking the "Real Housewives" franchise, and some fans are describing it as simply "Shah-mazing."
The already buzzy legal fallout from "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" star Jen Shah went into overdrive the week before Thanksgiving, after Shah’s alleged co-conspirator and close confidante, Stuart Smith, pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges before Southern District of New York Judge Sidney H. Stein on Nov. 19.
Shah’s ongoing legal battle will be examined in ABC News Studios’ "Housewife and the Shah Shocker," now streaming on Hulu. It takes an in-depth look at the controversial reality star and the telemarketing fraud charges brought against Shah and her alleged co-conspirators.
Shah was captured on camera March 30, the day of her arrest, while filming season 2 of the "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City." The arrest has been an explosive storyline for the franchise.
The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges Shah and Smith, along with other co-defendants in the case, carried out a wide-ranging telemarketing scheme that defrauded hundreds of people throughout the U.S., many of whom were over age 55.
Shah pleaded not guilty in April to charges of conspiring to commit wire fraud and conspiring to commit money laundering through telemarketing.
In a letter to Stein in July, federal prosecutors said Shah and Smith were among the "Tier A" conspirators in the government’s case, alleging they were "responsible for orchestrating the broader scheme" and supplied "leads that sustained sales floors."
Shah’s aunt, Lehua Vincent, told ABC News Studios she believes Shah is innocent and said she could never see her niece committing such a villainous crime.
"This is the most difficult time for our entire family," Vincent said. "The Jen Shah that I know is a woman who has come from a culture that is deeply rooted in honesty, loyalty and hard work. There's just no way that Jen has the ability to be harmful or hurtful or disrespectful."
Shah maintains innocence, Smith changes plea
Although Shah, her family and friends have maintained her innocence since her arrest, Stuart Smith, Shah’s so-called "first assistant" on the show, changed his plea to guilty on all three of the charges brought against him on Nov. 19.
Smith did not mention the reality star in his plea, but he did tell the court that he "knowingly and intentionally discussed and engaged with other individuals to develop a plan or operation to obtain money by false representations."
Smith said he was aware that the telemarketing companies he was involved with "were misleading customers ... by selling individuals, many of them who were older than 50 years of age, information that purported to be services to enhance their business opportunities. The services sold were of no value and of no real benefit to the consumer."
He also relayed to the court that in 2017 he created a corporate entity called Mastery Pro Group, along with others, in Wyoming "to hide actual ownership of the corporation."
Federal prosecutors alleged that Smith and Shah founded Mastery Pro and several shell companies in 2017 to launder profits. They allege Mastery Pro Group received no less than $5 million in criminal proceeds.
Judge Stein told Smith that the maximum sentence for the charges brought against him could amount to 70 years in prison. The maximum sentence for the charges in which Shah faces come to a total of 50 years in prison. Stein set Smith's sentencing for March 3 and released him on bail.
On the "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City," Shah has said that Smith is more than a just a business partner and has made a point of noting his loyalty to her. But his guilty plea could now spell trouble.
"Stuart knows where the bodies are buried and I think that if he testifies, that's gonna be a devastating witness for her," criminal defense attorney Ronald Richards told ABC News Studios. "She is going to have a hard time attacking his credibility because they were best of buddies until the arrest."
Lavish lifestyle and eruptions
Like many of its counterpart franchises, the "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" is known for portraying the lavish lifestyles of its cast members.
"Shah and Smith flaunted their lavish lifestyle to the public as a symbol of their 'success.' In reality, they allegedly built their opulent lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable, often elderly, working-class people," Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Peter Fitzhugh said after Shah and Smith’s arrest.
On the show, Shah is known for throwing extravagant parties, wearing designer clothes and living in a mansion called the "Shah Ski Chalet."
"I think in the beginning, fans thought she was making lots of money for that lifestyle, but over time things didn’t add up," said Dana Wilkey, who appeared on the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and now runs a podcast, "Dishing Drama with Dana Wilkey UNCENSORED."
Throughout her time on the show and in interviews, Shah remained vague about her job, mentioning once during an interview that she "runs a lot of different companies and businesses" without going into detail. This obscurity left many "Real Housewives" fans and critics puzzled at her extravagant lifestyle.
"We were all scratching our heads thinking, 'How does she make her money?'" Cesie Alvarez, an attorney and co-host of the podcast "The Bravo Docket," told ABC News.
In addition to her lifestyle, Shah is known for her meltdowns, breakdowns and explosive arguments between her, other castmates and even her own staff members. Just weeks before her arrest, leaked video and audio clips surfaced on social media of Shah verbally attacking her employees, including fashion designer Koa Johnson.
"Every scene, she’s like, screaming, and in real life there are moments where she’s always screaming. She’s actually worse off-screen," said Johnson, who was employed by Shah from March 2020 until he left in January 2021.
"She did say in a couple of her interviews that she's the Wizard of Oz," Johnson said. "The woman behind the curtain. I don't think she's the wizard, I think she's the Wicked Witch of the West."
In Season 2, Shah addressed Johnson’s accusations, saying, "He took my kindness and repaid me by making it look like I mistreated him, which was not the case at all."
The investigation goes back to 2016
ABC News Studios also spoke to agents from Homeland Security Investigations' El Dorado Task Force, which has been working on the case with the New York Police Department and other law enforcement agencies since 2016.
The investigation, which federal prosecutors call a nationwide telemarketing scheme, began with a narcotics arrest in New Jersey. The arrest led them to indict several telemarketers in U.S. vs. Ketabchi in 2017, which resulted in trial and more than 15 guilty pleas.
But the investigation did not end there. In November 2019, federal prosecutors handed down another indictment, USA vs Cheedie, et al, which charged another 10 individuals with participating in a nationwide telemarketing scheme. Shah and Smith are charged in the Cheedie case.
In court documents federal prosecutors say that "the facts and circumstances" of the Cheedie telemarketing fraud case "largely involve an extension of the criminal conduct previously charged in United States v. Ketabchi et al."
The government said that several witnesses who provided information related to the Ketabchi case, including certain cooperating witnesses who testified at the trial and others who were prepared to testify and have not yet been sentenced, will testify in connection with any trial arising in the Cheedie case.
Of the 13 defendants charged in the Cheedie case, all but three defendants have pleaded guilty. Shah, Cameron Brewster and Chad Allen have entered not guilty pleas and are expected to go to trial in March 2022.
ABC also spoke to two women who say they were scammed by some of the companies named in the Cheedie case.
Penny Pucket, 63, of Ulysses, Kansas, told ABC that she decided to purchase a program through an online ad in 2011 to help kickstart a home-based business. After purchasing the service, Pucket said she was contacted by several companies including one called Ecommerce. Pucket shared documents with ABC showing that she sent approximately $29,000 to several businesses that claimed they would help her make money by helping her develop a website and providing coaching, marketing and other services.
"When I realized that I'd been had, I was devastated," Pucket told ABC News Studios.
Ecommerce is one of several companies named by the government in the Cheedie case.
"I was so ashamed that I was took, because I thought I was a smarter person than that," she said.
Homeland Security Investigations Acting Special Agent in Charge Ricky Patel told ABC it’s easier to get scammed than people think.
"It is disgusting," Patel said, "and what we’d like to tell any victim is, it's not your fault, please come forward, because we need your help to make sure this doesn't happen to more people."
Marie Walker, 67, a Georgia-based preschool teacher, told ABC News Studios that she believes she was also scammed after clicking on an ad to start a home-based business in the summer of 2020. Walker said she sent $18,000 to telemarketers in exchange for building a website and getting marketing and social media coaching services.
One of the companies Walker sent $1000 to was Mastery Pro, which prosecutors say was run by Shah and Smith.
"If I can talk to the people that scammed me, I would say, 'Would you do this to your mother? To your sister? And why, why would you do this? And why would you keep doing it? Or do you have a conscience about it?' Cause I know I couldn’t do this," she said.
Walker also told ABC News studios that if Shah is responsible for defrauding people, she thinks Shah should be punished.
While Pucket and Walker allege they were scammed by companies that are named in the case, they are not part of the government's case against Shah and her co-defendants.
Shah’s trial date is currently set for March 7, 2022.
Her attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this report.
"Housewife and the Shah Shocker" is set to premiere exclusively on Hulu on Nov. 29.