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Couple Fined $1.85 Million for Legal Fraud

Disbarred lawyer, wife ran phony immigration consulting firm that bilked hundreds of Chinese immigrants, a judge rules.

March 01, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

A Monterey Park couple posing as immigration lawyers specializing in asylum cases were ordered to pay a $1.85-million fine after a judge ruled they had defrauded hundreds of Chinese immigrants, the state attorney general's office said.

Walter Wenko, 59, and Miao Huang, 48, falsely advertised themselves as attorneys for Asian Pacific Legal Services in Chinese newspapers and phone books from 1998 to 2001. They promised to help obtain work permits and green cards and to effect the immigration of family members in as little as a year.

Wenko, who also handed out business cards identifying himself as a lawyer, was disbarred in 1998 for failing to comply with a 90-day disciplinary suspension by the State Bar of California. Records show he regularly failed to pay bar membership fees. His wife, Huang, had no legal training, other than from Wenko.

The couple unlawfully prepared documents such as letters to the Immigration and Naturalization Service requesting asylum and hired attorneys when court appearances were required. When they were closed down, their firm had 350 clients, said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general. The immigration of all 350 may be in jeopardy, Jordan said.

The two, who charged clients between $1,000 and $8,000 apiece, are prohibited from providing immigration consulting services again, according to Tuesday's ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon M. Mayeda.

"With this court order, we have permanently shut down an operation that preys on people by stealing thousands of dollars for services that are never performed and, legally, cannot be by these unqualified individuals," state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said in a statement.

Neither Wenko nor Huang could be reached for comment. Wenko told The Times in 2001, after the lawsuit against him had been filed, that Lockyer "has gone off half-cocked" and said his firm would be vindicated. According to court records, Huang denied she had pretended to be a lawyer, saying she was an administrative assistant helping her husband with clerical work.

Court documents also show that Wenko and Huang did not file a $50,000 bond that the state requires from practicing immigration consultants. The couple also did not provide their clients with state-mandated written contracts that said they were not attorneys.

Wenko and Huang's business was one of three Los Angeles-area immigration consulting practices targeted by the attorney general's office in 2001. Employees from one business, Immigration Solution Center, settled out of court in September by agreeing to pay more than $200,000 in civil penalties. The third firm, Immigration World Wide Services, was forced to shut down.

State Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said the recent judgment would benefit everyone from new immigrants to legitimate immigration attorneys and consultants. Chu introduced a bill last week that would require bond companies to report to district attorneys any immigration consultant who had canceled the $50,000 bond. She said she hoped it would help weed out deceptive companies.

"There's been a concerted effort the last few years" to crack down, but the problem has grown, Chu said. "These people see a vulnerability and take advantage of people not familiar with American law and customs, people who are desperate."

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