Department of Consumer Affairs Shuts Down West Orange Resident's Bogus Legal Services Operation
Tuesday, October 16, 2012 • 2:14pm
WEST ORANGE, NJ - Hundreds of prison inmates and their families were mislead into paying hundreds of dollars apiece to a bogus, non-profit legal assistance organization called the Project Freedom fund. A 2.2 million state court judgment was announced today by Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa and the Division of Consumer Affairs against Bruce Buccolo, a West Orange resident, and his fradulent organization, for pocketing the money and failing to perform the promised work.
Superior Court Judge Kenneth S. Levy entered the Final Judgment by Default and Order barring 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 Chiesa said. “We will aggressively pursue anyone who assumes the guise of a non-profit organization in order to exploit the needy.”
During investigation, it was found that Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund incurred 210 violations under 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. According to the state, Buccolo mislead families with advertising that did not deliver what was promised and that he instead pocketed the monies for personal gain.
“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.”
Buccolo filed a Legal Services Plan with the Administrative Office of the courts in 2006, portraying The Project Freedom Fund a non-profit legal services organization, naming Buccolo as its Principal Officer and highlighting 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.”
However, inmates and their family members were made to pay up-front, non-refundable consulting fees of $350 and provided no meaningful legal services in return. If the defendants did attempt to perform legal services, they allegedly were often performed by either a disbarred attorney or by Buccolo, who is not an attorney at all.
Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund also allegedly advised potential clients to hit up friends and family for the up front costs: “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.
If you believe that you have been 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.