NEWARK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow and the state Division of Consumer Affairs filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against an allegedly fraudulent nonprofit legal assistance organization and its owner.
Bruce Buccolo of West Orange, N.J., and his organization, The Project Freedom Fund, allegedly mislead prison inmates and their families into paying hundreds of dollars for legal services, then pocketed the money for personal gain and failed to perform the promised work, violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations.
The defendants allegedly failed to provide contracted services, failed to provide refunds and used money paid to a purported nonprofit organization for personal use.
PFF allegedly portrayed itself as a nonprofit legal services organization. The company filed a legal services plan with the Administrative Office of the Courts in 2006, listing Buccolo as its principal officers 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." PFF allegedly further billed itself as a "nonprofit Legal Services Organization and public interest law firm licensed... to practice law, bringing legal help to the imprisoned of New Jersey."
In contrast to legitimate charitable legal service organizations, 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. PFF also allegedly used a disbarred attorney, Mark Bendet, to perform occasional legal services or used Buccolo, who was not an attorney at all. Bendet was a principal of PFF as early as 2006 and allegedly visited inmates, representing himself as an attorney on behalf of the organization even though he had been disbarred in 1997. Buccolo allegedly prepared legal documents, such as applications for post-conviction relief, despite not being an attorney.
The defendants allegedly coaxed inmates to pay the $350 fee by advising them that, "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."
PFF allegedly marketed itself as a "Pit Bull Dog Service" to oversee the work of public defenders and claimed 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."
"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," 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."
The AOC revoked PFF's legal services plan in 2010 after the company failed to respond to a request for additional information concerning whether it charged "user fees" to clients.
The DCA has received 18 consumer complaints against the defendants and is seeking restitution for each. The state is also seeking civil penalties and reimbursement.