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Professor enmeshed in likely Nigerian con

Part-time University of Miami law professor Enrique Fernandez-Barros said he was flattered when the Nigerian government e-mailed him for help.

"They wanted me to review some infrastructure contracts based on my international reputation," said Fernandez-Barros, an expert on foreign law.

He says he was told he would get $200,000 for helping the government and a well-connected Nigerian businessman receive $1.68-million from Penske for a stock sale, along with other work.

Fernandez-Barros, who holds three doctoral degrees, said he received the check from Penske Truck Leasing, deposited it in his credit union account and wired the money to Nigeria.

That sequence of events has landed him in the middle of a U.S. Secret Service investigation and a federal lawsuit over the vanished funds. The case has been referred to federal prosecutors. No charges have been filed.

In a civil suit filed a week ago in Miami, Penske says Fernandez-Barros helped rip off the company. The 73-year-old legal scholar says he believed the Nigerian transactions were legitimate and says he he never received a penny.

"I'm 100 percent innocent. I've been used," Fernandez-Barros said.

U.S. authorities have long investigated Internet scams allegedly tied to Nigeria. Most involve unsolicited e-mails that invite recipients to act as go-betweens in complex international financial transactions. In exchange for their help, the recipients are promised significant rewards _ but instead, their bank accounts are drained.

According to the suit, the Pennsylvania leasing company mailed a $1.68-million check to truck manufacturer Freightliner's Atlanta bank in December 2003 to pay for a new fleet of semitrailer trucks. The check, however, never made it into Freightliner's account. Officials say it's unclear how that happened.

Penske alleges Fernandez-Barros somehow obtained the "stolen" and "altered" check. The suit, assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, does not say who sent Fernandez-Barros the check, which included the same check number, date and signature as the original one, but also several noticeable differences

But the truck-leasing company, headed by auto-racing team owner Roger Penske, is not suing the professor. Penske has sued its own bank, Fleet National, which approved the professor's transaction, and the University Credit Union.

Fernandez-Barros, a native of Cuba who has taught foreign law at the University of Miami for the past seven years, said someone he believed was with the Nigerian government e-mailed him unexpectedly to solicit his legal expertise.

He agreed to do the work, which involved reviewing public-works contracts for road, sewer and water projects, and to be paid after he transferred the Penske check funds to Nigeria.

Fernandez-Barros said the Nigerian businessman, whom he says he never met, arranged for an associate in Atlanta to deliver the Penske check to his home. The check was made out to Fernandez-Barros.

The law professor said he thought the check was authentic. "I never altered the check, I never knew I was cashing an altered check, and I never took the money," Fernandez-Barros said.

Now Fernandez-Barros said he feels that he is the victim of an international scam. He blames the Nigerian government.

"They put me in the middle of this whole mess," he said. "They used me like a chess piece to steal the Penske money."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.