State AG alleges legal assistance organization victimized inmates, families

NEWARK – The state has brought suit against a legal assistance organization allegedly engaging in fraudulent practices that victimized prison inmates and their families.

Attorney General Paula T. Dow and the State Division of Consumer Affairs this week filed suit against The Project Freedom Fund and its owner, Bruce Buccolo, of West Orange.

The state alleges they misled  prison inmates and their families into paying hundreds of dollars for legal services, then pocketing the money for personal gain and failing to perform the promised work.

The state’s four-count complaint alleges that  Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and advertising regulations by failing to provide contracted-for services, failing to provide refunds, and using money paid to a purported non-profit organization, for personal use.

According to the complaint, Project Freedom Fund 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 allegedly misleading advertisements, PFF further billed itself as 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, the defendants allegedly induced inmates and family members into paying up-front, non-refundable consulting fees of $350 and provided no meaningful legal services in return, according to the complaint. On the rare occasion when PFF attempted to perform legal services, those services allegedly were often performed by either a disbarred attorney or by Buccolo, who was not an attorney at all, the AG’s office alleged.

Mark Bendet was disbarred by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1997 after pleading guilty in Superior Court, Passaic County, to theft by deception in relation to a fraudulent insurance claim, the AG’s office reported. At least as early as 2006, Bendet was a principal of PFF and allegedly visited inmates, representing himself as an attorney on behalf of the organization, according to the complaint.

Buccolo, who allegedly ran PFF from his West Orange home, testified at an investigative deposition in 2010 that he prepared legal documents, such as applications for post-conviction relief, despite not being an attorney. He also testified that he used PFF proceeds for his own use, such as paying his personal bills, the AG’s office stated.

As stated in the complaint, the defendants’ deceptive sales pitch included the phony promise that “with Project Freedom Fund guiding you every step of the way, you always win.”

“Indigent inmates seeking to re-enter society, often with the support of their families, are entitled to the same just treatment and protection under our consumer protection laws,” Attorney Dow said in a release. “We allege that through their lies and deceitful advertisements, these defendants manipulated the desperation felt by near-penniless inmates and their family members, for Buccolo’s own personal enrichment.”

In January 2010, the AOC revoked PFF’s Legal Services Plan when PFF failed to respond to a request for additional information concerning whether it charged “user fees” to clients. In an August 2010 letter to Buccolo, the AOC confirmed the revocation based on its determination that PFF did not “recommend, furnish, or pay for legal services to its members or beneficiaries” within the meaning of the AOC’s Rules of Professional Conduct, “but, rather, charges fees for services.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs has received 18 consumer complaints against the defendants and is seeking restitution for each. The state is also seeking civil penalties as well as reimbursement for its attorney’s fees and investigation costs.

Link to Complaint below: State AG alleges legal assistance organization victimized inmates, families