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For several years, Joseph DeGregorio worked for a number of plaintiffs’ lawyers in northern New Jersey, particularly on Essex County personal injury cases. Billing himself as a paralegal, he handled settlements as an independent contractor. That all ended on Nov. 7, 2001, when he was indicted by a state grand jury for theft by deception. The 38-year-old Belleville, N.J., man was accused of receiving settlement checks from several carriers, but not depositing them into the attorney escrow accounts. Instead, he forged the names of the lawyers and the claimants, and deposited the monies into his personal bank account. DeGregorio pleaded guilty to pocketing $102,000 from 10 claims, ranging from $3,500 to $19,500. And on Sept. 19, Essex County Superior Court Judge Harold Fullilove sentenced him to four years in state prison. He was also ordered to pay back the money to the victim clients. It was not the first time DeGregorio was caught for fooling around with checks in New Jersey. Fullilove, in rejecting a plea from DeGregorio’s lawyer for leniency, noted that he had a bad-check conviction in Ocean County. WORKING FOR TWO SOLOS The victims were clients of Verona, N.J., solo practitioner Jerry Crapis and Newton, N.J., solo practitioner Richard Masel, though DeGregorio represented other lawyers and firms, according to the defense and the state attorney general’s office. Asked how a paralegal could pull off such a fraud, DeGregorio’s lawyer, Anthony Iacullo, says, “What amazes me is that these guys [lawyers] could be in their offices and yet they say they did not know what was going on.” Iacullo, of Nutley, N.J.’s Iacullo, Martino & Marzella, adds, “Some of [the attorneys] say they never saw one piece of paper” related to the client file. “How can a lawyer not be knowing what’s going on in his own house. That’s the great question.” John Hagerty, a spokesman for Attorney General Peter Harvey, says the matter was not referred to the Office of Attorney Ethics. According to the indictment, DeGregorio was engaged in the scheme from January 1999 to February 2001. Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fried of the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor, who handled the case, was unavailable for comment. Hagerty says the insurance fraud prosecutor concluded that the lawyers were victims. As to how DeGregorio was caught, Hagerty says claims personnel for at least one insurance company contacted the insurance fraud prosecutor. “They felt it just smelled bad,” says Hagerty. Crapis, who moved to Verona in 2001 after practicing in Bloomfield, N.J., for about a decade, did not return a call on Sept. 26 seeking comment. His secretary said he was on a conference call and had to go to court. Masel did not return a message left on his voice mail on Friday seeking comment. Iacullo, in pleading for leniency, told the judge that DeGregorio was a graduate of Seton Hall University who for the most part has lived a law-abiding life. In an interview on Sept. 26, he said that his client has gone through a rough divorce and is now taking care of a young son. He says DeGregorio, now in jail, intends to apply for release in 10 months under the Intensive Supervision Program, which requires that at least 20 percent of the term be served. “He is selling the house and when he does he intends to use the proceeds to pay back the victims,” says Iacullo. “The attorney general wants to see that the monies are repaid to the victims” before the state agrees to release him. At sentencing, Fried said the state would oppose early release until all the funds are paid back.

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