By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Tabarez says that in 1997 he heard an ad on a Spanish-language radio station for a firm called Lupita Diaz Immigration Resource Centers that could help him secure his coveted card.
According to Tabarez, the ad said he needed two years of employment at the same location to qualify. He says he had been working at an Italian restaurant in Mesa for longer than that, so he called the Diaz firm.
Tabarez says someone at the California firm told him he'd have to send in an $800 down payment, then $100 a month until he paid $4,500. He says he spoke to a local woman affiliated with the firm, whom he wrongfully assumed was an attorney.
Tabarez says he paid the $4,500 in cash over a period of about three years. He has receipts from Diaz Immigration to prove it. But he still hasn't won his card. And Tabarez says the Diaz firm added another $4,000 to its fee earlier this year, and threatened to drop his case if he didn't pony up.
Seeking redress, Tabarez asked a friend more conversant in English to write a letter for him to the State Bar of Arizona: "I am seeking help from you because this is fraud. It is not just me. They have done this to a lot of people who they have deceived and misrepresented. I would like that this would not happen to anyone else. I would like your office to help me find out what is happening. They have hurt me financially. Because of the great sacrifice it was to get the money together for this case, we have sacrificed by not buying clothing for our family, food, and they still have not done anything towards my resident status."
The Bar's Fran Johansen answered Tabarez's complaint by saying she couldn't do much to help him other than to forward the information to the Attorney General's Office.
A legal assistant with the Consumer Protection and Advocacy section of the AG's Office wrote to Johansen on September 3. "We are in the process of reviewing [the case]. . . . Regardless of the outcome of our review, we will retain this complaint in our files to keep track of this individual's business practices."
That, says Johansen, is the same frustrating form letter she's gotten from the AG's Office hundreds of times since the Bar hired her in 1999.
New Times called the Diaz firm in Canoga Park, but no one from the firm would return calls.
A few weeks ago, Tabarez said he hadn't heard anything from authorities about his complaint since Johansen's letter.
"I guess I am an illegal guy for my life," he said.
About a year ago, the State Bar made public its plan to crush the non-lawyer legal industry in Arizona.
First, its Consumer Protection Committee issued a report that began: "Unauthorized practice of law (UPL) has caused a crisis of faith in Arizona's legal system. Citizens of Arizona are being harmed financially and legally every day by individuals engaged in UPL. There is no regulation of this illegal industry and no recourse for harmed customers."
In April, the Bar recommended that the Arizona Supreme Court make it illegal for any non-lawyer to prepare "any document in any medium intended to affect or secure legal rights for a specific person or entity."
The document-preparation industry responded quickly, saying the proposal was a power play by the Bar. Several doc-prep business owners staged a protest at the Supreme Court.
Justice Thomas Zlaket, who was State Bar president in the late 1980s, says its stance troubled him.
"To some extent, my profession is in a state of denial," Zlaket says. "It's difficult to go after people who are engaging in UPL when we have so many issues within our own profession. Lawyers like to say, We donate plenty of [free] services to the public,' and many do. But we hardly do enough for the money that a lot of us make."
Says Chief Bar counsel Bob Van Wyck -- a key architect of the controversial proposal -- "I can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how Rick Gordon and others thought that we wanted to obliterate them, though that wasn't our intention. There are lots of people with significant legal problems who need help in getting through the legal system, and who don't have attorneys. But there has to be accountability, for attorneys and for non-attorneys."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Jones decided last July that the Bar's dramatic proposal needed closer scrutiny. He convened a group of State Bar officials, document preparers and court staffers to thrash things out.
The committee met through the summer and into the fall, in often-heated discussion that focused on two main questions: Should consumers have the right to choose a document preparer instead of a lawyer to help them? If so, what can be done to protect them from unscrupulous non-lawyers?
In the end, the State Bar backed down from its original position, agreeing to go along with the proposed creation of a new board, to operate under the wing of the Supreme Court. The Board of Legal Document Preparers would certify, oversee and potentially punish (with fines and possible loss of license) a group of eligible non-lawyers.