New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Files Suit Against Allegedly Bogus, Non-Profit Legal Services Provider for Exploiting Prisoners and Family Members
NEWARK – Attorney General Paula T. Dow and the State Division of Consumer Affairs this week filed suit against an allegedly fraudulent, non-profit legal assistance organization and its owner, accusing them of misleading prison inmates and their families into paying hundreds of dollars for legal services, then pocketing the money for personal gain and failing to perform the promised work.
The State's four-count Complaint alleges that defendants Bruce Buccolo, of West Orange, and his organization, The Project Freedom Fund ("PFF"), violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations by failing to provide contracted-for services, failing to provide refunds, and using money paid to a purported non-profit organization, for personal use.
According to the Complaint, PFF, portraying itself as a non-profit legal services organization, filed a Legal Services Plan with the Administrative Office of the Courts ("AOC") in 2006, listing Buccolo as its Principal Officer and describing its mission as bringing "legal aid to jailed and imprisoned inmates too poor to obtain legal representation and who have little or no other recourse." In misleading advertisements, PFF further billed itself as a "non-profit Legal Services Organization and public interest law firm licensed . . . to practice law, bringing legal help to the imprisoned of New Jersey."
In contrast to any legitimate charitable legal services organization, however, the defendants allegedly induced inmates and family members into paying up-front, non-refundable consulting fees of $350 and provided no meaningful legal services in return. On the rare occasion when PFF attempted to perform legal services, those services allegedly were often performed by either a disbarred attorney or by Buccolo, who was not an attorney at all.
Mark Bendet was disbarred by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1997 after pleading guilty in Superior Court, Passaic County, to theft by deception in relation to a fraudulent insurance claim. At least as early as 2006, Bendet was a principal of PFF and allegedly visited inmates, representing himself as an attorney on behalf of the organization.
Buccolo, who allegedly ran PFF from his West Orange home, testified at an investigative deposition in 2010 that he prepared legal documents, such as applications for post-conviction relief, despite not being an attorney. He also testified that he used PFF proceeds for his own use, such as paying his personal bills.
In coaxing inmates to pay the $350 fee, the defendants allegedly offered the following advice in advertisements targeting the financially distressed: "Though the cost we pass on to you is truly minimal, we understand you may not even have these minor funds . . . we do suggest and urge you to ask friends and family members to help by . . . bearing some of the financial burden . . . . Try calling a parent, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter . . . . If you like, you can send us their names, addresses and telephone numbers and we will contact them ourselves on your behalf."
According to the Complaint, PFF deceptively marketed itself as a "Pit Bull Dog Service" to oversee the work of Public Defenders, despite having no authority to perform such an oversight role. The organization misleadingly claimed that it would "make sure that your Public Defender/Pool Attorney is not selling you out or forcing you into a bad plea/a ridiculous sentence" and "make your attorney do his job . . . by taking on the responsibility of becoming his supervisor and overseeing his work."
As stated in the Complaint, the defendants' deceptive sales pitch included the phony promise that "with Project Freedom Fund guiding you every step of the way, you always win."
"Indigent inmates seeking to reenter society, often with the support of their families, are entitled to the same just treatment and protection under our consumer protection laws," Attorney General Paula T. Dow said. "We allege that through their lies and deceitful advertisements, these defendants manipulated the desperation felt by near-penniless inmates and their family members, for Buccolo's own personal enrichment."
In January 2010, the AOC revoked PFF's Legal Services Plan when PFF failed to respond to a request for additional information concerning whether it charged "user fees" to clients. In an August 2010 letter to Buccolo, the AOC confirmed the revocation based on its determination that PFF did not "recommend, furnish, or pay for legal services to its members or beneficiaries" within the meaning of the AOC's Rules of Professional Conduct, "but, rather, charges fees for services."
"These defendants targeted a significantly disadvantaged, and in certain instances literally captive, client base: inmates lacking understanding of the law and loved ones desperately wanting to help," Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, said. "We will aggressively pursue any for-profit organization that assumes the veneer of a charity, particularly those that exist only to exploit the needy."
To date, the Division of Consumer Affairs has received 18 consumer complaints against the defendants and is seeking restitution for each. The State is also seeking civil penalties as well as reimbursement for its attorney's fees and investigation costs.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website, or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
Follow the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/pages/NJ-Division-of-Consumer-Affairs/112957465445651 ; and check our online calendar of upcoming Consumer Outreach events, at http://www.nj.gov/oag/ca/outreach/.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Koziar, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, is representing the State in this action. Investigator Aziza Salikhov in the Office of Consumer Protection conducted the investigation.