Virginia Lawyer

VaLawyer_June/July 2013

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Forum Collaboration Necessary for Successful Investigation and Prosecution of Unauthorized Practice of Law by Christine Lockhart Poarch Unauthorized practice of law (UPL) plagues inner-city ethnic communities and rural hamlets. It masquerades with myriad faces: the community do-gooder, the disbarred attorney, or the unapologetic purveyor of outright fraud. The Virginia State Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law is charged with the statewide investigation of UPL. But in recent years, the committee's work has required that we stretch our proverbial legs a bit and seek out unique forms of collaboration with community partners and law enforcement and implement alternative methods of investigating UPL around the commonwealth. The Work of the UPL Committee It bears clarifying what our committee can and cannot do. We can investigate whether an individual has committed UPL and make a finding that the complaint is founded, but we cannot prosecute the offender. With the authorization of covert investigations by the Standing Committee on Legal Ethics in LEO 1845 (2009), our staff attorneys can send in investigators as "clients" to gather additional information and avoid the possibility that the individual suspected of UPL will simply disappear. We can dissuade and discourage UPL through direct engagement of the offender by use of letter agreements, and we routinely refer founded cases of UPL for prosecution to local commonwealth's attorneys and occasionally federal investigative agencies like the Department of Homeland Security Investigations. We also refer cases to the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia to pursue injunctive relief. In any case in which we find that UPL has occurred, we report the individual to Consumer Sentinel, a federal www.vsb.org consumer fraud database hosted by the Federal Trade Commission. At a minimum, reporting ensures that law enforcement with authority to access the database will have the information from our investigation at their disposal. This is particularly important because purveyors of UPL are mobile, moving their commercial enterprises from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or disappearing when their fraud is discovered, only to reappear years later. Collaboration in Action A few well-publicized examples will demonstrate the importance of collaboration in our investigations. Luis Ramirez offered "legal services," often holding himself out as an immigration attorney, through a McLeanbased office. In addition to soliciting cases and charging thousands of dollars for legal services he was not authorized to provide, he also doled out advice on a radio talk show and in print media. While claiming to be an advocate, championing the cause of undocumented students and victims of crime, Ramirez pilfered thousands of dollars from clients to fill out paperwork or represent them in criminal, bond, and deportation proceedings. His representation normally consisted of little more than appearing as a "friend" in court and liaising with public defenders and other attorneys. In one reported case, he commanded a $2,200 fee for his services and when the client demanded that the money be returned, he used intimidation and threats to keep her quiet. The Virginia State Bar received at least five complaints about Ramirez and Ramirez and Associates in late 2011. Soon after an investigation was opened, a Fairfax police detective contacted the bar to advise us that he was involved in a criminal investigation of Ramirez. He asked that the Virginia State Bar not notify Ramirez of the pending UPL complaints against him, as any such notification would thwart the agency's undercover investigation. The UPL committee forwarded all of its complaint information to the detective and suspended its investigations. By the end of January 2012, five felony warrants were obtained and served on Ramirez. Ramirez later pleaded guilty to three felony counts of obtaining money under false pretenses and was sentenced early this year. Bryan Cave, a Washington, D.C., law firm, later filed a civil suit against Ramirez and received a settled judgment of $25,000 and an injunction barring Ramirez and Associates from marketing or advertising legal services. This was one of a number of pro bono efforts by David A. Zetoony at that firm to combat notario fraud with the tools of pro bono consumer fraud advocacy. Another collaborative effort involved Howard Shmuckler, who in 2009 was the subject of twenty-four complaints stemming from his operation of a mortgagerescue business. He falsely held himself out as a Virginia-licensed attorney and offered legal services to customers related to mortgage loan modifications. Shmuckler was never licensed to practice law in Virginia. His license to practice law in the District of Columbia was under suspension during the period in which the activity alleged in these complaints occurred. In the course of the bar's investigation of Shmuckler, the investigator discovered that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office were also investigating his activities. The Virginia State Bar investigator worked closely with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office and shared witnesses and other information Vol. 62 | June/July 2013 | VIRGINIA LAWYER 55

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