Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department has ordered a four-year suspension of an attorney convicted of immigration fraud. The facts:
Respondent's conviction of one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud was based on his assisting an FBI undercover officer, posing as an applicant for political asylum from Albania, to manufacture false and fraudulent facts to be submitted as part of his political asylum application. Respondent and his wife, convicted as co-conspirators, coached the undercover in creating false stories of persecution in support of the application.
Respondent, a 1989 graduate of Albany Law School, started his own practice in 2001. By 2009, 90% of his practice consisted of immigration work and many of his clients were ethnic Albanians. Respondent did not speak Albanian, but his nonlawyer wife...a native of Albania who immigrated to the United States in 2001, assisted in his office by completing immigration forms and translating for non-English speaking ethnic Albanian clients. Although the undercover specifically denied suffering any persecution, respondent indicated that in order to obtain asylum the "client" must demonstrate political problems and provided examples of persecution which could be included on an application. Respondent emphasized the need to act quickly because the law was about to change. The undercover paid respondent $500. The receipt provided by respondent indicated that the undercover was required to pay an additional $1,500 to have the asylum application filed.
While the Hearing Panel placed significant weight upon the fact that the application was never filed, the Committee urged that the reason for that was the failure of the undercover to return with the $1,500 fee. Respondent claimed that he chose not to file the application upon reviewing his wife's handwritten notes indicating an entry date of August 19, 2003, whereas the computer entry reflected a November 2004 entry date for the undercover.
The Hearing Panel identified five mitigating factors which the Committee accepted. They are: (1) respondent had never been the subject of any prior finding of discipline or misconduct during his 20 years of practice; (2) respondent cooperated fully with the Disciplinary Committee; (3) six character witnesses testified regarding respondent's reputation for honesty and integrity in the community and nine letters attested to his good character; (4) respondent has given pro bono assistance to immigrants and testified regarding his successful efforts, as a cancer survivor, to assist an ethnic Albanian family, whose son had cancer, to obtain asylum; and (5) the conviction has ruined respondent financially and professionally. The Panel credited respondent's claim concerning his reason for not filing the asylum application, and noted both that only one instance of criminal conduct had been charged and the federal sentencing judge determined that no enhancements were warranted.
The court held that the conviction involved a "serious crime" but did not require disbarment. (Mike Frisch)