A Potemkin Lawyer

With Jorge Fernandez as your courtroom advocate, you may as well surrender

"Since then I have been trying to call. I could never get him. I asked his secretary to mail my paper[work]. She said yes, but I never got anything, please help me!" she wrote to the Bar in August. Toussaint is no closer to seeing her new daughter. "He has my money, he has my papers -- everything, and my daughter's still back home."

Other complaints in the Bar file read much the same: a misdirected call, a demand for money, and then silence. But at least one person says she got something from Fernandez. Gwendolyn Taylor of North Lauderdale called him in July (after dialing 411 for Legal Aid). Needing help in a hurry for her pending divorce, she met Fernandez at his Potemkin office on Brickell Avenue on July 12. "He was so flamboyant, and he catches you at your most vulnerable time. You would think that everything was legit," she says. "That was the first time and last time I actually saw him."

He returned her check the next week, saying he didn't have time to cash it and that her credit union in Hialeah was "too far," she recalls. So she paid in cash. "The information I received was something I could have done myself," she wrote. She convinced him to redo it, but it still wasn't legally acceptable. "I'm like, "Well, what am I paying you to do?'" she says.

Josh Cotter

Then he quit returning calls. After she went to the office and told a receptionist she had a court date, Fernandez called and said he would "try to obtain an attorney to appear" with her. In August, Taylor called 411 again and reached the real Legal Aid office in Miami, where staffer Isis Napoles told her she'd heard other complaints about Fernandez.

When Taylor called Fernandez and demanded a refund, he replied, "You are trying to cause me problems," then hung up, Taylor recalls.

In October, Fernandez signed an agreement with the Florida Bar that prevented him from offering any legal services and promised $2865 in partial restitution to 11 people, plus $1706 in investigative costs to the Bar. "Restitution is pretty much voluntary. We get what we can, because he didn't have to agree to anything," says Jacquelyn Needelman, counsel for the Bar's Unlicensed Practice of Law section in Miami. If approved by the Florida Supreme Court, the agreement will allow Fernandez 30 to 90 days to make repayment.

Angry victims of Fernandez's have recently called the Legal Aid office in Miami-Dade to complain, says senior attorney Juanita Cendan. "I've talked to at least 10 or 12 people. It seems like in the past two weeks it's increasing. I think that what's happening is that last month he had a busy month.

"Ninety-nine percent of them, I would say, were under the impression that he was an attorney," she continues. "It's a scam, and he's using our organization's name, which I'm outraged at." Cendan called 411 herself and asked for Legal Aid. "I was shocked when the operator gave me his number."

Miami police are also investigating Fernandez. "There are so many complaints," says Sgt. Robert Suarez of the economic-crimes unit. "He's hurt a lot of people."

Meanwhile Fernandez is still in business. For three weeks this fall, he bought an ad in New Times Broward-Palm Beach advertising various legal services. (Since learning about Fernandez's dubious legal standing, New Times has stopped running the advertisement for legal services.) But for the past two weeks he has run an ad in Miami New Times with a slightly different slant: "CASH ADVANCE NOW!! If you have Personal Injury, Med Malpractice Workmans Comp or Employment Case you may be entitled to a pre-settlement CASH ADVANCE. Call Free Eval/no Obligation. Contact Jorge @ 305-868-7444." A call to that number results in the same old routine: a secretary, none too clear on the exact nature of her business, taking messages for Fernandez.

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