Pam Bondi
Pam Bondi (Diego M. Radzinschi)

The group of South Florida companies offering foreclosure defense work seemed legitimate on the surface. They claimed to be a network of 100 attorneys, used the word “law” in their company names, described themselves as consumer advocates and promised vigorous representation for homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.

But a new lawsuit by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi paints a different picture, alleging the companies and their principals posed as lawyers to prey on vulnerable clients, and duped young attorneys into serving as front men for fraudulent operations.

Bondi filed suit Aug. 18 in Palm Beach Circuit Court against 20 defendants, accusing them of operating illegal foreclosure defense and loan modification law firms in Coral Springs, West Palm Beach and Boca Raton. The AG’s complaint names Adam Forman, Victor Spagnuolo, Wendy Anne Hart, Barbara Rudolph, Wayne Lucas and Joseph Hilton—also known as Joseph Starr and Joseph Yurkin—and their companies including The Asset Protection Law Group, Consumer Legal Resources of Florida, Consumer Legal Advocates Inc., Heritage Law Group, Legal Referral Services of Florida, Liberty Law Group, Galler Lehman Law and Selective Mortgage Corp.

Along with the suit, Bondi includes a letter sent by defendant The Asset Protection Law Group to clients, urging them to disregard lender communications.

“Please be assured we are diligently working on your behalf,” the March 7 letter reads.

That assurance, prosecutors allege, was as fake as the company’s claims of a staff of licensed attorneys who let “nothing slip through the cracks.”

‘Those Guys Hurt People’

None of the defendants are licensed to practice law in Florida, but prosecutors say they used the names of legitimate attorneys on corporate documents and court filings.

“There’s no word for it. It was absolutely terrifying,” said Tampa real estate attorney Jennifer Heath, who claims that defendant Galler Lehman Law illegally named her as a vice president on corporate filings after she interviewed for a job. “They stole my name and tried to use it to open a law practice.”

Heath said she filed a police report and Bar complaint, and spoke to investigators at the attorney general’s office.

“The whole atmosphere was just wrong,” she said. “Where were the partners? There were no lawyers. They’re targeting young attorneys who’ve never had a real job before.”

Prosecutors filed a two-count complaint alleging violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and violations involving homeowners during the course of residential foreclosure proceedings.

The defendants did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Reflecting on the AG’s allegations, prominent foreclosure defense lawyer Roy Oppenheim of Weston’s Oppenheim Law expressed shock at “temerity, the gall” of the defendants.

“Am I glad the attorney general is doing this? Yes. Should they have done it earlier? Yes,” said Oppenheim, who’s not involved in the AG’s litigation. “The (housing) crisis is almost over. These people have made a ton of money.”

Oppenheim pointed out what he considers to be red flags in the defendant companies’ marketing material: no third-party vetting sources, no judicial records to show victories or dismissals on clients’ behalf and language that suggests an unfamiliarity with the nuances of the legal industry. He also cited allegations about the defendants’ use of agressive web-based marketing strategies to generate leads and then recruit attorneys willing to work for a fraction of the legal fees.

“Unfortunately there aren’t enough jobs for lawyers, so you have attorneys going through these clearing houses that pretend to be law firms. It’s an unholy alliance,” Oppenheim said. “This hits very close to home for us. We were one of the first firms doing foreclosure defense work, and those guys hurt people like me.”