If ever there were an opportune time for a local attorney to commit fraud taking a fee without performing the promised service, dipping into a trust fund or skimming from a client's personal-injury settlement this is it.
Last year, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill allowing the State Bar of California to continue collecting $458 in annual dues from the state's attorneys. As a result, the bar which traditionally has handled complaints against lawyers in California fired more than 90 percent of its 329-person staff, most of whom were devoted to disciplinary work.
Why did the governor veto the legislation? While in favor of disciplining rogue lawyers, Wilson has criticized the state bar for the way it spends its money and for being too politically liberal. He has argued that the bar should take out loans on its property and reshuffle its budget.
Now, instead of turning to the bar, fraud victims have been forced to file malpractice suits a costly and time-consuming procedure that also means hiring another lawyer. They also can turn to local law enforcement, another time-consuming process with no guarantees that the lost payments will be returned.
Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ordered lawyers to again start paying a fee used for disciplining lawbreaking attorneys, but the amount was significantly lower than it had been only $250. And it could be months before the bar can begin dealing with the 3,000 pending complaints that have not yet been read.
In other words, these are opportune times for unscrupulous attorneys.
"I can't say that they won't be discovered eventually, but this is a good time to do it, because we're not going forward with any new cases that are coming in," said Paul Virgo, assistant chief trial counsel for the state bar, who works out of the organization's L.A. office.
And even when the state bar does begin staffing up again a process that will likely be slow, because many of those laid off have already found new jobs it may take months or longer to get to most of the backlogged complaints.
"We're trying to identify the worst of the worst, and when we get our staff back, we will go forward with those first," Virgo said.
In general, the types of attorney scams have not changed very much over the years. The most common scheme, he said, remains insurance fraud everything from inflating bills to insurance companies to filing bogus claims.
Other scams include attorneys using money from trust funds without their clients' knowledge, and lawyers failing to pass on the total amount of personal-injury settlements to their clients.
Most of the newest legal scams are being perpetrated outside the jurisdiction of the state bar mostly by people pretending to be attorneys.
The problem is particularly acute among L.A.'s Latino immigrant community. That's where a scam artist will set himself up in businesses as a notario publico. In the United States, that means the person is a notary public and qualified to witness the signing of legal documents. But in some Spanish-speaking countries, the title confers the status of high-ranking attorney.
A scam artist posing as a lawyer could claim that he can get a recent immigrant citizenship or permanent-resident status sometimes demanding as much as $10,000 for the promised services. In the case of illegal immigrants, fraud victims generally are reluctant to file a complaint with the police, fearing they will be deported.
But in many cases, the victims are in the country legally and simply looking to make their residency status permanent.
"They involve people who are here on special visas student visas, or whatever," said Tom Papageorge, head deputy district attorney of the L.A. district attorney's consumer protection division.
Papageorge said his office recently prosecuted two cases involving phony lawyers targeting immigrant groups Japanese and Chinese in one case, and Latino in another. In the first case, the scam artist was sentenced to three years in state prison and ordered to pay restitution to his clients. In the latter, the scam artist was sent to county jail for a year.
In conjunction with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the office also is in the process of forming a new agency, the Los Angeles Immigration Fraud Task Force, to prosecute that type of scam, which is becoming more widespread as L.A.'s immigrant population continues to surge, Papageorge said.
Common scam: Keeping all or a portion of a client's money after his or her case is settled.
How it works: The attorney settles a personal-injury or automobile-accident case for a client, but does not inform the client either by not returning his or her phone calls, or by simply lying to the client. The attorney may eventually keep all of the money, or give only a portion of it to the client, claiming the case was settled for less than it actually was.
How it's detected: As a case moves through the legal process, clients should keep in regular contact with their attorney, getting updates on the case's progress either by phone or in writing. The case should be filed within a year of the date of the incident. In Superior Court, it should go to trial within five years. If the client is not given progress updates at least every six months, or suspects the case is not being pursued, he or she should file a complaint with the State Bar of California. If the case is settled, the client should get from the attorney a full disbursement sheet, showing how the settlement money was distributed. Also, only the client should have the authority to sign checks.
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