Lawyer Pleads Guilty to Altering Asbestos Complaints To Make His Clients Defendants

A disbarred New Jersey lawyer has pleaded guilty in federal court to involvement in a scheme to falsify complaints in more than 100 asbestos suits by adding his clients as defendants.

Arobert Tonogbanua, while a partner at the Haddonfield office of Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, obtained copies of legitimate asbestos complaints filed in New York State courts and altered them by deleting named defendants and inserting the names of his firm’s clients.

He then forwarded the altered complaint by e-mail or fax to the firm’s clients and their insurance companies.

Tonogbanua and his colleagues at the firm, who prosecutors say were unaware of the fraud, then undertook representation of the clients: conducting depositions, answering discovery and settling claims.

Prosecutors say Tonogbanua’s actions in more than 100 cases from 2008 until 2012 generated more than $1 million in fraudulent fees, costs and settlements.

The information filed by the government against Tonogbanua cites a case in which he sent an e-mail to a client with offices in Connecticut and Missouri, forwarding a doctored complaint and summons from New York.

U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman in Camden, N.J., accepted Tonogbanua’s plea of guilty to one count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 17.

The Pittsburgh-based firm says it discovered Tonogbanua’s criminal activity in April 2012 and promptly fired him and notified the FBI, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics and the affected clients.

Tonogbanua was disbarred by the state Supreme Court last April.

“Clearly, this shocked those of us who knew and worked with Mr. Tonogbanua. We never had any reason to suspect he was engaged in, or capable of, misconduct,” the firm says.

Dickie McCamey says it has reimbursed the affected clients for all fees paid to the firm on account of the fraud. They were provided with copies of audit reports from a forensic accountant hired to determine the extent of their losses.

Tonogbanua divided his practice at Dickie McCamey between immigration law and toxic tort litigation, including asbestos and silicosis cases.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, he undertook the scheme to increase business and raise his standing at the firm and profited from the scheme by way of increased billings which led to bonuses and increased compensation.

But his defense lawyer, Michael Miller, of Helmer, Conley & Kasselman in Turnersville, says, “All the income went directly to the firm, not to him.”

Under the terms of a plea agreement, Tonogbanua must make restitution to Dickie McCamey. Miller says his client expects to do by the date of sentencing, although he declines to say how much Tonogbanua is required to pay.

Miller says his client is “looking at the possibility of going to jail” and adds, “It’s tough to predict these things in federal court; it’s much more wide open than in state court.”

Tonogbanua, a native of the Philippines who came to the U.S. as a child, is a 1996 Temple University School of Law graduate. Before joining Dickie McCamey, he was with Margolis Edelstein of Mount Laurel from 1998 to 2006.

The government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Carrig.