Court House Scoundrels
In June 1993, an attorney for the discipline unit of the Vermont State Bar sent a letter to her counterpart in Arizona. It alerted the local Bar that disbarred lawyer Gary Karpin was moving to Phoenix.
"Suffice it to say," the letter said, "out of excess of caution, I forward this decision for your reading pleasure . . ."
That was a lawyerly way of saying BEWARE.
The attorney included a copy of the Vermont Supreme Court's recent disbarment ruling against Karpin, which recounted serious wrongdoing in four separate cases.
"[Karpin] had dishonest and selfish motives," the high court had written. "He engaged in a pattern of misconduct. He committed multiple offenses. He submitted false evidence and used other deceptive practices during the disciplinary process. He refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct. He took advantage of vulnerable victim[s]."
Seven years later, Bill and Becca Ludlow decided to call it quits after a decade of marriage. The Mesa residents agreed not to hire opposing attorneys because they'd settled most of their differences about finances, and how best to arrange joint custody of their three young children.
The estranged couple had seen a newspaper ad for Karpin's Phoenix business, Divorce With Dignity. It said Karpin was an ex-prosecutor and divorce litigator now focusing on "mediation."
The Ludlows agreed to pay Karpin $3,500 to help them resolve the remaining issues. When they met with Karpin at his office on East Shea Boulevard, they took note of his prominently displayed law diploma.
"We thought we were dealing with an established attorney," says Becca Ludlow, who works at a golf course in Mesa. "We just wanted someone who could just help us get through this as easily as possible."
But the Ludlows' experience with Gary Karpin turned out to be just the opposite.
Bill Ludlow later complained to the State Bar of Arizona that Karpin had charged an excessive amount of money under false pretenses: He said Karpin had led them to believe he was a practicing lawyer, which he's not, and that he'd promised to mediate, not advocate.
To the contrary, the Ludlows tell New Times, Karpin discouraged any chance that the couple had of reconciling, and tried to talk Becca into having a romantic relationship with him.
For his part, Karpin denies any wrongdoing involving the Ludlows or any other "client."
The Ludlows had stepped into a world where unlicensed, unhindered, and sometimes unscrupulous individuals are making lots of money doing work that once was solely the province of attorneys.
Increasing numbers of Arizonans each year are hiring from a growing pool of non-lawyers eager to perform legal work on their behalf.
Some, like the Ludlows, are white and middle-class. Many are poor people, including confused immigrants and others without the sophistication to understand their basic legal rights, and without the financial ability to access those rights when they do.
All have proved vulnerable to the scam artists who have been allowed to operate with impunity in what many have dubbed the "document preparation" industry.
"My parents make an excellent example of what we at the Bar have been worried about with the document-preparation industry," says State Bar president Ernest Calderon, whose father was a copper miner and his mother was a short-order cook in Morenci. "Neither of my folks had a lot of formal education. Say they'd gone to a non-lawyer to help them resolve a legal matter. What recourse would they have had if the guy had given them bad legal advice, or screwed up the documents? None. And people like my folks are being hurt, purposely or inadvertently."
In part, this industry is flourishing because Arizona currently is the only state without criminal or civil sanctions against the unauthorized practice of law. Beyond that, the State Bar of Arizona has no authority over non-lawyers.
Just as important, government agencies have been of little help in regulating or even monitoring businesses and individuals who offer to help with everything from green cards to divorce mediation to estate planning to getting money from insurance companies.
The state Attorney General's Office rarely takes action against anyone in the doc-prep industry, despite hundreds of complaints it receives annually about practices that, in many instances, are textbook examples of consumer and criminal fraud.
For the past six months, New Times has reviewed more than 1,000 complaints filed with the State Bar (which forwarded a majority of those complaints to the AG's Office), and interviewed more than 40 people familiar with the non-lawyer legal industry -- victims, doc-prep business owners, lawyers, judges and others. The paper also reviewed numerous court documents on cases involving the unauthorized practice of law and traced the backgrounds of a number of the people who offer legal-assistance services.
What emerges is a picture of a bustling but murky world where the unsuspecting may easily fall prey to both con artists and the merely incompetent.
Attorneys generally cost too much for everyone but the most affluent. And it's abundantly clear that many Arizonans aren't getting the lower-cost legal services that many non-attorneys are willing to provide.
As former Arizona Supreme Court chief justice Thomas Zlaket notes: "Even the middle-class can't afford to pay what lawyers charge right now. That means, for better or worse, many people end up going somewhere else."
The non-lawyer legal industry has grown so large and become so controversial that it has been targeted by the lawyers. For months, the industry and the State Bar of Arizona have been locked in a momentous struggle for power and business.
The lawyers, who rightly have one eye on their bank accounts, want the state Supreme Court to bring the doc-prep businesses under a new board that would certify eligible practitioners and regulate their practices. The Bar also wants the power to seek civil penalties against unlicensed non-attorneys who continue to engage in lawyer-like practices.
Ernie Calderon concedes that many people who go to court don't need a lawyer: "The young couple getting divorced with no kids that maybe have a TV set, car and a few other things. We don't want to require the hiring of lawyers, and I certainly don't want to see all document preparers thrown out. But what I want is to see them held accountable for what they do. In the words of the prophet Dirty Harry, a man has to know his limitations."
The owners of legitimate document-preparation firms -- and some do good work for a reasonable price -- also say they would embrace a regulatory system under the wing of the Supreme Court. But the document preparers worry that the lawyers just want to put them out of business.
"We already knew the State Bar hates that we exist," says Rick Gordon, owner of The Divorce Store -- a high-profile operation with offices in Phoenix and Mesa. "Now we knew they wanted to destroy us and our livelihoods."
The high court is expected to vote on the proposed Board of Legal Document Preparers early next year.
Allen Merrill, president of the Arizona Independent Paralegal Association (AIPA), says about 200 document-preparation firms are operating statewide, serving more than 25,000 new customers annually. Those numbers don¹t include those who call themselves "mediators" or other legal-sounding names.
Merrill, who runs a respected doc-prep business in Mesa called Legal Solutions Inc., says he knows that those in his industry have widely divergent backgrounds -- and prices.
"But we offer an alternative to the price-gouging monopoly that lawyers are all about," he says.
But many in the non-lawyer legal industry also charge exorbitant rates, then do little or nothing to help their clients. Others pretend to be lawyers, and even go so far as to write legal briefs and appear in court on behalf of clients.
Yet others who claim to be attorneys actually are convicted felons and/or chronic impostors who are hell-bent on trying to run scams on vulnerable victims.
In part because Arizona lacks a statute covering the unauthorized practice of law, it has become a haven for attorneys disbarred elsewhere, such as Gary Karpin.
"I don't think losing a license to practice should be a life sentence from doing anything in mediation with people," Karpin says. "I have a lot of experience, and I help a lot of people with their situations."
Some in the industry are both felons and disbarred attorneys, including the venerable Dick Berry, who operates a so-called "paralegal firm" in Tempe called Why Pay a Lawyer? Berry twice has served prison terms for robbing clients, as an attorney and as a non-attorney. A probation officer once characterized him as "very slick, sophisticated, and substantially more dangerous to the public than most offenders." His faulty advice cost dozens of Valley residents their homes in the mid-1990s. A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge fined Berry $1 million a few years ago, which remains unpaid.
Fran Johansen, an attorney who heads the State Bar's unauthorized-practice-of-law section, says she receives about 400 complaints from consumers annually, including dozens from people who thought they were dealing with lawyers but hadn't been. Johansen says she repeatedly responds that the Bar has no enforcement authority over non-lawyers, and that she'll forward the complaints to the proper authorities, usually the AG's Office.
"That's where it usually ends," she says. "Nothing ever seems to happen to anyone. We can't seem to get the government interested in this problem, though the consumer fraud we learn about here almost every day is amazing."
Most attorneys are kept in check by a strict set of rules and a code of behavior that is monitored by the State Bar. Lawyers who violate those rules, or even break the law, can face varying levels of discipline, including disbarment and, occasionally, criminal indictment.
The Bar also may compensate victims from its Arizona Client Protection Fund. Funded through Bar dues, the fund in 2001 paid claims to clients totaling $177,699 against 17 attorneys.
"Our discipline system certainly isn't perfect, but at least we have a mechanism to deal with attorneys who screw up," says chief Bar counsel Bob Van Wyck, a former Superior Court judge. "The document preparers and others in that industry pretty much have had a free run."
Consumers have filed complaints at the State Bar against 17 disbarred attorneys since January 2000, claiming they were engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and other allegations of wrongdoing. Divorce With Dignity's Gary Karpin fits into that category, and has had 10 complaints filed against him at the Bar.
The 51-year-old Karpin's Web site includes testimonials from people who say he gets results with his "mediation" techniques.
But Karpin has continued to act as if he's a practicing attorney. County court records show that in January 1997, Judge Joe Howe listed Karpin as the attorney for one party in a divorce case. But Howe learned Karpin didn't hold a license to practice law, and removed him from the case before Karpin attempted to appear in court.
In mid-1999, a Valley woman complained she'd paid Karpin $5,000 with a credit card after he convinced her he could fix the financial issues she was having with her ex-husband.
"There were citations from the prosecutor's office and diplomas on his wall, all leading me to believe I was in a lawyer's office," she told the Bar. "I assumed I was speaking to a lawyer."
She said Karpin later met alone with her husband, where he apparently revealed that he wasn't a licensed attorney. The woman told the Bar she'd confronted Karpin for misleading her about having a license to practice law.
She says he later refunded $2,700 of the $5,000 she'd paid him after she kept complaining. "There was no preparation of documents of any kind," she wrote to the Bar. "There was no mediation. Mr. Karpin did nothing but take $2,300 from me."
The Bar's Fran Johansen informed Karpin that he shouldn't be practicing law without a license. In response, Karpin sounded like the lawyer he once was:
"Your letter is defamatory. Prior administrative discipline is irrelevant to qualifications for mediation. I will protect my right to practice mediation free from slander, defamation and restraint of trade."
By "prior administrative discipline," Karpin was referring to his disbarment.
Karpin tells New Times that Johansen and the State Bar have continued to "conspire" against him.
In September 2001, a Gilbert mother of two hired Karpin because of problems with her ex-husband over child support and custody issues. Tae Eum later told the State Bar she'd hired Karpin because she thought he was a lawyer who also could help solve her growing credit problems.
Eum wrote to the Bar that, during her second meeting with Karpin, he'd asked about romantic relationships she'd had since her divorce. Then he'd advised her to break up with her boyfriend at the time. "Also he said he is very attracted to me, I am very pretty, sexy. When the case is over, he wants to go out with me."
Eum eventually paid Karpin $3,400, with little apparent resolution of her legal problems. Frustrated with his "representation," she secretly taped her last meeting with Karpin, early this year. During the contentious session, Karpin said an unnamed "partner" would represent her in court if she wanted to pursue the case.
"You didn't say anything about your partner," Eum told him. "You said you can represent me. I thought you were an attorney."
"Then why can't you represent me?"
"Because I focus on mediation. That's my practice."
"You're an attorney?"
"Well, I thought I was on the day I graduated from law school and they gave me a juris doctorate degree. But maybe I was confused about that. I am a lawyer-mediator. My practice is mediation. If you want representation, my partner will be glad to provide it for you at trial."
Karpin denied he'd ever asked Eum to go out with him after the case was over, though he admitted dating another female customer who knows Eum.
A few months after Bill and Becca Ludlow first met with Karpin in 2000, Bill Ludlow filed a petition for conciliation in Maricopa County Superior Court.
"I was thinking maybe we could get back together, and I wanted to buy some time," says Ludlow, a manager for a Mesa camping store. "When I told Gary that, he came unglued. He said it was going to cost me a lot more money, and that . . . conciliation wasn't an option. I believed him at the time."
Ludlow dropped his conciliation attempts, and the divorce became final that September.
But Becca Ludlow had hidden something from her ex-husband until after a judge signed the decree. She says she'd spent time with Karpin outside the office while negotiations with Bill had been ongoing. At one encounter, she says, Karpin had made an overt pitch for her affections.
"I really wasn't leading him on," Becca Ludlow says. "It was just you want someone on your side in your divorce, and Gary definitely was that person. That night at dinner he told me, I'd like to have a physical relationship with you.' That's when I got out of there."
Karpin vehemently denies Becca Ludlow's allegations, saying that he went to lunch with her once, and only after the divorce was final.
After Becca finally told her ex, he says he decided to delve into Karpin's background. On the Internet, he came upon two Web sites that listed Karpin as an Arizona attorney specializing in family law. But Ludlow also found the 1993 Vermont disbarment ruling, and learned Karpin has no license to practice law anywhere.
"I still can't believe that no one can or will do anything about this guy, or anyone else like him," Ludlow says. "He didn't do anything for us except try to come between us and take our money."
In September, Ludlow filed a civil lawsuit against Karpin in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging fraud, breach of contract and other counts.
Though Karpin hasn't responded formally to the suit, he told Ludlow's attorney in a letter that, if he loses, he'll file for bankruptcy protection to avoid having to pay.
About the last thing Elena Rodriguez wants to do two days before Thanksgiving is to file for divorce. But here she is, at the courthouse in downtown Phoenix, trying to figure out how to do just that.
The Phoenix native has the two youngest of her three small children with her as she waits in line at the Superior Court's self-service center for her "divorce with children" forms.
Rodriguez says she's living with her mother at the moment, and works for a cleaning service about 30 hours a week. She says she thinks her husband of eight years will hire a lawyer to fight the divorce, even if he has to go into debt.
"He thinks it's wrong for a husband and wife to split, unless he's the one to do it," Rodriguez says. "But I can't take it anymore."
She pays a few bucks for the packet that the county provides prospective divorcees in person (forms for divorces and other legal matters may be downloaded for free off the Internet).
But Rodriguez appears stunned when a woman at the counter says she can't help her fill out the paperwork. By now, her children are whining, the guy behind her in line is fidgeting, and time is running short on her parking meter.
"I can't even think about this right now," she says, waving the packet in the air. "I'll have to get somebody to help me."
Rodriguez is asked about the possibility of hiring a lawyer.
"A lawyer?" she asks, smiling briefly. "A lawyer! I think I'm going to have to pay for one of those people who does this stuff for you."
If she does, she'll join thousands of other Maricopa County residents who hire document preparers each year to fill out (and sometimes file) paperwork in divorces and other legal cases.
Attorneys filed only about 15 percent of the 17,000-plus divorce petitions filed in Maricopa County in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2001, according to unofficial statistics amassed by the courts.
The litigants filed the rest pro se, by themselves. They included people like Rodriguez, as well as those who settled their legal issues before filing and whose divorces were considered "uncontested."
If she hired a lawyer, her divorce probably would end up costing her several thousand dollars -- money she doesn't have. An established document preparer likely would charge her up to about $1,000.
"I'm not sure right now what to do," she says, before hurrying out of the courthouse with her kids. "I wish somebody would tell me."
Life is sweet for Rick Gordon these days. He just remarried, and he says his business, The Divorce Store, is doing well. It is a self-described "full-service document preparation/paralegal firm," with locations in west Phoenix and Mesa.
A consummate hustler, Gordon says one of his earlier enterprises in Phoenix was as owner of a limousine service. He recalls putting an ad in the Yellow Pages shortly after opening for business that claimed he had the largest limo service in Arizona.
Actually, he says, chuckling, he had just one limo at the time: "But we got a lot bigger in a short period of time."
The 49-year-old Gordon says he got the idea for a document-preparation business in the late 1980s, while working as a process server and collection agent for attorneys.
"Lawyers cost too much, and people just don't need them in a lot of cases," he says. "The Divorce Store was a natural in this community, and still is."
Gordon says he and his employees -- there are about 15 at the moment -- have processed paperwork for about 15,000 Family Court cases, almost all of them without a glitch. He says about 40 percent of his clientele considers Spanish their primary language.
"We never take on work we can't handle," he says. "I'll sometimes tell someone to talk to an attorney, then come back and we'll process the paper for you. The contract we make people sign says no lawyers are employed here by The Divorce Store, and we're not providing them legal advice. For all the work we do, we rarely get a complaint against us from anyone. Look it up."
In fact, there are few complaints against The Divorce Store at the State Bar, Better Business Bureau or anywhere else.
Besides doing divorce paperwork, Gordon also offers "assistance" with paternity, annulment, custody, visitation and child-support issues. And his prices aren't outrageous. For example, he charges $549, plus $417 in court costs, to customers filing for an uncontested divorce with children.
"Lawyers make their money off litigating, and charging hourly," he says. "The bulk of our work is on a flat-rate basis. We are a society of lawyer-haters. Is it any wonder that a simple, honest service like ours is making me a heck of a living? There's enough business out there for everybody."
About 10 Valley "mediation" businesses routinely compile the names of people whose spouses recently have filed for divorce in Maricopa County. The firms use the lists to do their own direct-mail marketing effort, trying to get consumers to hire them to mediate the breakup.
The letters these businesses send warn of allegedly dire consequences for not responding quickly to the divorce petition, such as losing one's home, car, even custody of the children. The firms suggest that they can handle everything but court appearances -- including filing papers and discussing legal issues with the opposing side -- for far less than any attorney might charge.
In a complaint to the Bar last year, Chandler attorney Bill Spence noted "the letters also suggest that the senders do much more than prepare documents.' . . . The fact that they seek to be retained' by one party presently adverse to another dispels any notion of legitimate mediation."
The mediation-mill concept also has proved physically perilous to some unsuspecting consumers, including Sally Collins, the single mother of an 11-year-old daughter.
Collins' husband physically assaulted her in December 2000 after he learned from a solicitation letter sent by the local "mediation" business of McLaughlin Martin and Associates that she'd filed for divorce.
Collins' voice trembles as she talks about the beating.
Court records indicate it happened four days after Collins' attorney filed for divorce on her behalf at Maricopa County Superior Court. In part, the petition alleged that Rodrick Collins had been physically abusive during the 10-year marriage.
Collins says she didn't tell her husband she'd filed because she didn't want to move until after the holidays.
"I didn't want to spoil my daughter's Christmas, and my only other choice right then was to go to a shelter," says Collins, a Tempe schoolteacher. "I knew he'd go nuts when he found out. But my lawyer said we didn't have to serve him until after I got a new place, so that's what the plan was."
Collins says she arrived home on the afternoon of December 23, 2000, and brought in the mail. Her husband opened up a letter addressed to him -- "I thought it was just junk," Sally Collins says -- then dropped it on the floor.
"He said, Is this what I think it is?'" she recalls. "I knew I was dead right then. Honest, I would have been if [my daughter] hadn't been home."
Dated December 22, the letter was from McLaughlin Martin and Associates. It warned in part: "You may have been served a divorce petition by your spouse and are now required to answer [it] within 20 days of being served if you live in-state. If you choose not to respond, be aware that your spouse may be awarded all they have requested in terms of your home, alimony/spousal maintenance, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, and, if applicable, child support and custody of any minor children."
The fee requested by McLaughlin then was $1,450 (it's now up to $1,850), which was said to include "all documents and mediation/consultation."
According to police reports, Rodrick Collins put a choke hold on his wife, and repeatedly punched her in the face. He instructed his sobbing daughter not to call 911, then wouldn't let mother and daughter leave the home.
"I was in a traumatic place," Collins says. "I had learned to survive by just going along and pleasing him. So when he told me I wasn't going anywhere, I wasn't."
Court records show that, the next day, Rodrick Collins took his battered spouse to a Phoenix urgent-care center. She had suffered a broken nose, two black eyes, and deep bruises. By way of explanation, he told medical personnel that Sally had stepped into a few punches while the couple had been horsing around.
The day after Christmas, Sally Collins took out an order of protection against her husband, and moved with her daughter out of the house. Rodrick Collins soon was arrested, and later pleaded guilty to felony assault.
Last April, Sally Collins filed a civil lawsuit against McLaughlin Martin and Associates for consumer fraud and other counts. Rodrick Collins is also listed as a defendant.
Collins' attorney, Lisa Counters, alleged in the suit, "Any knowledgeable or experienced divorce mediator would know that mediation is not needed or even possible before the petition is served, and that some petitions are filed, but never served."
Says Sally Collins, "I want to get the law changed. You shouldn't be allowed to send these unsolicited letters to people, especially when it lists domestic violence in the divorce. You're completely unprotected. None of this would have happened if he hadn't gotten that letter."
But Darrel Martin Montero, who says he is a consultant to McLaughlin Martin and Associates (his son, David, is the "McLaughlin" in the firm), disagrees with Collins.
"We get 10 thank-yous for every complaint for alerting someone to the fact that they've been sued for divorce," says Montero, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. "If the Superior Court thinks this was such a dangerous thing to do, wouldn't they block public-records access to the names and addresses for a few months? I think the questions on this ought to go to the court, not to us."
The Valley's legal landscape also is sprinkled with slippery characters who try to convince others that they are practicing lawyers, when they've never been.
One of them, David Pecard, made front-page news in late 1996 with his arrest on criminal charges of forgery, theft and sexually fondling two female inmates at the Maricopa County Jail.
It turned out Pecard was a longtime con man who had been AWOL from the U.S. Army when he fooled Phoenix police and Sheriff Joe Arpaio into believing he was an agent for the FBI and other agencies. Pecard talked Arpaio into personally issuing him a deputy sheriff's badge, which afforded him access to the women who later accused him of assault.
But a judge dropped charges against Pecard after it came to light that Arpaio's jail staff illegally had taped his phone conversations with his lawyer, and had opened his legal mail. The CBS show 48 Hours later devoted an hour to Pecard's saga, during which his Phoenix attorney said he'd hired him as a paralegal.
"He's made a commitment to being David Pecard," lawyer Richard Gierloff said on the show in 1999. "He's very much dedicated to improving his legal skills. He's terribly sincere."
But Pecard apparently is continuing to portray himself as much more than he really is, as complaints this year to the State Bar indicate.
In late January, the mother of a Phoenix man convicted of murder wrote to the Bar that Pecard had told her he was a criminal-defense attorney, and wanted to help with her son's appeal. Celeste Dwight said she'd turned over a box of legal files to Pecard, but then had been unable to contact him for months.
Dwight said a woman who identified herself as Pecard's sister-in-law later told her Pecard had been called to duty by "military intelligence" after the September 11 attacks. Celeste Dwight never paid him any money, but was livid that four months of her son's window to file for appellate review had elapsed on Pecard's watch.
Then, in March, a Southern California man sent the State Bar a business card he said Pecard had handed him during a seminar. The card said "David M. Pecard, Lawyer," and listed the phone number and address of Richard Gierloff.
F.M. Bonsall tells New Times, "He shows up, pays his $300 for the weekend, and is telling people, Yeah, I'm a lawyer in Arizona, if you need my services . . .' and so on. There was something about the guy, though he's smooth, so I checked him out, and found out he was a fake."
The Bar's Fran Johansen wrote to Pecard, telling him he shouldn't be telling people he's an attorney when he's not.
Pecard responded last April by saying, "Clearly, giving someone a business card does not constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Nor have I engaged in any conduct that is, or could be defined as the unauthorized practice of law."
Pecard went on in his written response to claim that he's a member of the Federal Bar Association admitted to practice in two federal jurisdictions. He signed the letter, "David M. Pecard, Esq."
But Vicki Stevens, that association's Phoenix chapter president, says she's never heard of Pecard. Stevens points out that to be a member of her voluntary organization, a person must be admitted to practice law in at least one of the 50 states.
Yet another complaint about Pecard came to the Bar on October 11, this one from federal prisoner Michael Reist. He is a former Marine sergeant now serving a 15-year prison term in Kentucky for rape.
Reist wrote that Pecard contacted him in September 1999, saying he was an attorney and promised to have him out of prison by that Christmas. Reist said his parents sent Pecard a check for $8,000 for his services.
Months passed, however, before Pecard informed Reist that the military had lost his file. Pecard then communicated sporadically with his "client" for much of 2000 and 2001, coming up with a litany of excuses why the appeal still was on hold.
Finally, last April, Pecard faxed Reist a copy of papers he said he was ready to file in the District Court of Kentucky. Reist said authorities there wanted Pecard to send documentation that he truly is an attorney.
"I haven't heard from him since," Reist wrote the Bar.
Richard Gierloff says he and Pecard "parted company" about a year ago, and that he doesn't know the whereabouts of his onetime client/employee. Gierloff says he asked Pecard earlier this year to stop using the card with his phone number and address on it.
"I know that Mr. Pecard took correspondence classes at a non-accredited law school," he says. "He told me he'd been admitted to practice in a couple of tribal courts somewhere. But I never checked into any of that, didn't have to. I had him doing strictly paralegal stuff for me, period."
Jesus Tabarez says he wanted a green card since soon after he came here illegally from Mexico in the mid-1990s.
Tabarez, in his early 30s, is the father of two. He's earned excellent ratings from his employers -- all of them Valley restaurant owners -- since landing in the Valley. He produces a large envelope of tax-withholding stubs to show he's been paying taxes since a few months after he got here.
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.
If the Arizona Supreme Court approves the proposal early next year, those certified will be allowed to "prepare or provide legal documents . . . in any legal matter when [a customer] is not represented by an attorney."
Disbarred lawyers, convicted felons and others "not of good character" would not be eligible for certification. Under the new code, the State Bar also would be able to go after wrongdoers in the non-lawyer legal industry, through civil remedies such as cease-and-desist orders.
But even State Bar officials say they're unsure how that part of the proposed new code will work if the Supreme Court sanctions it.
"I don't see the bad guys in that industry getting shut down anytime in the near future," Van Wyck says. "But . . . out of all this, I think we came up with a much better system. We'll see."
On December 5, the committee convened last summer by Chief Justice Jones met for the final time. The session proved to be a microcosm of the intense rift that remains between lawyers and non-lawyers on the unauthorized-practice-of-law issue.
State Bar officials in attendance didn't say much, other than to applaud the "accountability" that the committee's revised proposal is designed to force on the non-lawyer legal industry.
But Phoenix attorney Les Tennen railed against the proposed rules changes on behalf of unnamed clients.
When he finished, committee member Richard Lubetsky -- a Los Angeles attorney who represents We the People, a chain of document-preparation businesses with two offices in the Valley -- asked Tennen if he believes consumers should have the right to choose between an attorney or a document preparer.
"My personal opinion is that document preparers should not be allowed to do any of this," Tennen replied. "I think it's the practice of law. If the real issue is low-cost legal services, then that should be the forum."
Countered Lubetsky, "The crucial thing is letting consumers know what they're dealing with. That's where the disclosure needs to be. We see far more complaints where people thought they were dealing with an attorney than anything else. You don't say, We're going to shut down the legal profession because of a few bad attorneys that are out there.'"
After the meeting, Rick Gordon said Tennen's viewpoint accurately sums up much of the Bar's mindset: "They hate us, they'll always hate us, and I still don't trust them."
Gordon's colleague, Allen Merrill, takes a broader view.
"Essentially, the Bar has given us everything we wanted, after they didn't want us to be in business at all," he says. "We've been legitimized, which is a good thing. We are the winners here."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona