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New Jersey authorities win $2.2 million judgment against bogus inmate legal service

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: State authorities have obtained a $2.2 million judgment against a bogus, non-profit legal assistance organization and its owner, who are accused of “cynically exploiting” prison inmates and their families, by making them pay paying hundreds of dollars for legal services without doing the work.

A judge barred Bruce Buccolo, of West Orange, and his organization, The Project Freedom Fund, from offering legal services in New Jersey.

“The defendants have preyed upon an especially vulnerable and disadvantaged group of victims: inmates seeking to return to society, and their supportive family members, many of whom had very little money and an incomplete understanding of the law,” Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said.

The judgment includes $26,000 in consumer restitution, $2.1 million in civil penalties, $51,000 for the State’s attorney’s fees, and $13,000 for the State’s investigative costs.

The State’s complaint, filed by the Division of Law on behalf of the Division of Consumer Affairs, alleged that Buccolo and Project Freedom Fund charged an upfront, non-refundable “consultation fee” of $350 and then either not doing the work or contracting it out to disbarred attorneys – as well as to people who didn’t even have law degrees.

The Better Business Bureau reported 9 complaints against the PFF since 2008, all involving service. Three were resolved through BBB intervention; the agency “did not find [the PFF] made a good faith effort” to resolve two others — and received no response from the organization on four more, according to records obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

The DCA said it began investigating the organization after receiving complaints from no fewer than 18 people that the PFF ripped them off. The list quickly grew to 34 inmates, or relatives of inmates, affected by the defendants’ actions.

“Indigent inmates and their family members are entitled to the full protection of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, as are any other residents of our state,” Eric T. Kanefsky, Acting Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs, said. “Anyone who seeks to take advantage of their desperation and need will be held fully accountable.”

Buccolo gave a deposition during the investigation in which he testified that he prepared legal documents despite not being an attorney and used some of the money to pay his home utility bill, court papers reveal.

People may not be sympathetic to inmates and prisoners, the state’s complaint said, but “[m]ost are desperate to regain their freedom and are also in dire financial [straits]. Family members are also deeply impacted. Many will do whatever they can to free their relatives. These factors make inmates and their families particularly vulnerable to exploitation by deceptive business practices.”

Buccolo and his group “misrepresented themselves as a non-profit legal services organization when, in fact, they operated primarily for their own financial benefit,” the suit said. Through misleading advertisements, the PFF “induced inmates, or their relatives, into paying” the $350 fee “and then generally performed no work for them.”

On the “rare occasions” when services were provided, it says, “the work was often done by a disbarred attorney – or worse, someone who wasn’t even a lawyer.

“Thus, the victimized consumers and their families did not receive any of the promised benefits, but paid fees that caused their financial circumstances to become ever more dire,” said the civil suit, filed in Superior Court in Newark.

Driving home the complaint, state authorities quoted from the PFF’s literature:

“Though the cost we pass on to you is truly minimal, we understand that you may not even have these minor funds available to you and therefore, if it is at all possible, we do suggest and urge you to ask friends and family members to help by contributing a share and bearing some of the financial bwden thus making it easier by spreading it out among a number of persons.

“Try calling a parent, a brother, as sister, a son, a daughter, an aunt, an uncle or a cousin. If you like, you can send us their names, addresses and telephone numbers and we will contact them ourselves on your behalf.”

Calling itself a “Pit Bull Dog Service,” the PFF promised potential clients that it would “make sure that your Public Defender/Pool Attorney is not selling you out and forcing you into a bad plea/ a ridiculous sentence.”

“[W]e make your attorney do his job and fly right whether he likes it or not and we do it by taking on the responsibility of becoming his supervisor and overseeing his work.”

“With Project Freedom Fund guiding you every step of the way,” the come-on said, “you always win.”

Established in Delaware nearly six year ago, the PFF listed its address as Newark, although the suit says Buccolo conducted the organization’s business from his West Orange home as the executive director.

Several years ago, it says, he filed a Legal Services Plan with the Administrative Offices of the Courts saying the organization “brings legal aid to jailed and imprisoned inmates too poor to obtain legal representation and who have little or no other recourse.” It also billed itself as a non-profit, public interest law firm.

That plan was revoked in January 2010 after state authorities learned that one of the PFF’s practicing lawyers, Mark Bendet, was disbarred by the state Supreme Court in March 1997 after admitting his involvement in a bogus insurance claim, the suit says.

The various counts outlined in the state complaint included:

  • Promising legal services it wasn’t authorized or capable of providing;
  • Promising to provide legal services to inmates but failing to do so;
  • Promising to provide refunds to consumers but failing to do so;
  • Preparing legal documents when not authorized to do so;
  • Charging for services it wasn’t legally authorized to proivide;
  • Having a non-attorney prepare legal documents;
  • Having a disbarred attorney prepare legal documents;
  • Using a disbarred attorney to provide legal counsel;
  • Using money paid to a purported non-profit organization for personal use;
  • Failing to provide contracted for legal services to consumers;
  • Failing to provide refunds to consumers who did not receive contracted services;
  • Enticing incarcerated individuals and/or their family members to pay fees to PFF by guaranteeing legal results that they could not provide.
  • Misrepresenting the PFF as a non-profit public interest law firm;
  • Claiming that the PFF exercised an “oversight” role over the Public Defender’s office.

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