- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook,
; and check our online calendar of upcoming
Consumer Outreach events, at www.nj.gov/oag/ca/outreach/.
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.