|NEWARK – Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa and the Division of Consumer Affairs today announced a $2.2 million state court judgment against a bogus, non-profit legal assistance organization and its owner, accused of misleading prison inmates and their families into paying hundreds of dollars for legal services, then often pocketing the money for personal gain and failing to perform the promised work.
The Final Judgment by Default and Order, entered by Superior Court Judge Kenneth S. Levy, bars defendants Bruce Buccolo, of West Orange, and his organization, The Project Freedom Fund, from offering legal services in New Jersey.
“The defendants have preyed upon an especially vulnerable and disadvantaged group of victims: inmates seeking to return to society, and their supportive family members, many of whom had very little money and an incomplete understanding of the law,” Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said. “We will aggressively pursue anyone who assumes the guise of a non-profit organization in order to exploit the needy.”
The Court found that Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund engaged in conduct which comprises 210 violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Advertising Regulations. The defendants are ordered to pay $2.2 million, including $26,000 in consumer restitution, $2.1 million in civil penalties, $51,000 for the State’s attorney’s fees, and $13,000 for the State’s investigative costs. The State’s complaint, filed by the Division of Law on behalf of the Division of Consumer Affairs, alleged that Buccolo and Project Freedom Fund violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations by soliciting business through misleading advertisements, failing to provide contracted-for services, failing to provide refunds, and using money paid to a purported non-profit organization for personal use.
“Indigent inmates and their family members are entitled to the full protection of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, as are any other residents of our state,” Eric T. Kanefsky, Acting Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs, said. “Anyone who seeks to take advantage of their desperation and need will be held fully accountable.”
The Project Freedom Fund, portraying itself as a non-profit legal services organization, filed a Legal Services Plan with the Administrative Office of the Courts 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, the organization called itself 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 induced inmates and their family members to pay up-front, non-refundable consulting fees of $350 and provided no meaningful legal services in return. On the rare occasions when the defendants attempted to perform legal services, they allegedly were often performed by either a disbarred attorney or by Buccolo, who is not an attorney at all.
In coaxing inmates to pay the $350 fee, Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund 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 have even 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.”
The defendants marketed The Project Freedom Fund as able to “make sure your Public Defender/Pool Attorney is not selling you out” and included the hollow promise, “with Project Freedom Fund guiding you every step of the way, you always win.”
The Division of Consumer Affairs received complaints from 34 inmates, or relatives of inmates, affected by the defendants’ actions.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Koziar, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section within the Division of Law, represented the State in this action. Investigator Aziza Salikhov in the Office of Consumer Protection conducted the investigation.
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.
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