Back in February, Marcileen Bernard was near the end of her rope. "I work for $8 an hour. There's no way I can support two kids and my mom and maintain a decent standard of living," the 33-year-old Miramar resident says. For three months she had been trying to squeeze child support from her ex-husband, to no avail. So she called on Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm that provides help and comfort, free of charge, to the poor and desperate.
Or so she thought.
When Bernard called 411 and asked for Legal Aid, she recalls, she received a number that led her to a recording of a man's voice. She left a message and the next day got a call from a woman who identified herself as Andrea, from the Florida Legal Association (FLA). Then a man took the receiver and identified himself as Jorge Fernandez. He said he'd be happy to take her case, but it would cost $450.
Aghast she queried, "Why's it going to cost me $450 if this is Legal Aid?"
Fernandez responded that Legal Aid didn't really help people for free. Instead, he said, charges vary based on income. Because she was supporting four people on about $16,000 per year, she qualified for the $450 rate, he explained. By August, when she had scraped up the money, her situation had become more urgent. She and her family were living in her ex-husband's house, which was for sale. Soon she'd have to move out. She called Fernandez back, and he sent her some paperwork. On August 7 she drove to a ritzy office building at 8201 Peters Rd. in Plantation to return the forms and hand over a check.
She says she called back the next day to see how things were going. They weren't. Whenever she dialed Fernandez's number during the next few days, she got a recording or a secretary saying he was out of the office. Suspicious, she sent him an e-mail insisting upon the return of her money. He called back then but didn't even remember what her case was about or what he'd promised to do for her. She again demanded her money back. He said he would have to talk to his supervisor.
By then thoroughly alarmed, she hurried to her bank to stop payment on the check. It had been cashed the previous day. She hasn't heard a word from Fernandez since. Her encounter with him has left Bernard wondering how she'll make ends meet. "Right now I'm moving into a new place, and that $450 would come in real handy," she says.
When Bernard called 411 again, she received a different number for Legal Aid. When she complained about Fernandez, an office worker told her Fernandez was not employed there. Upon her asking about him at the Florida Bar Association's Miami office, she describes the reaction of the person with whom she spoke this way: "Oh, my God, this person again."
"I was under the impression that he was a lawyer," Bernard says.
He's not, and Legal Aid offices in Broward and Miami-Dade counties confirm that he has never been connected with them. Although Fernandez has identified himself to clients as a paralegal when pressed, the clients agree that he puts on a convincing show: dressing well, driving expensive cars, sitting in lavish offices. He accompanies the look, several clients claim, with phrases like: "I'll be happy to take your case," "I've been practicing," and "I'll represent you," but he never actually says, "I'm a lawyer."
More than a dozen people in the past few months have complained to the Florida Bar and local police departments that, when they called 411 to reach Legal Aid societies in Broward and Miami-Dade, they received FLA's number. The Florida Bar identifies that mysterious firm as one person: Jorge Fernandez. According to the Bar complaints, hopeful clients met him in offices on the ninth floor of 1221 Brickell Ave. in Miami and at the Plantation site. (One complaint alleges he had a similar office in Orlando.) But those facilities were apparently all show, rented briefly to impress prospective customers. Now all phone numbers listed for those locations are disconnected, except for one Broward line, which is connected to an answering machine for "Florida Legal."
New Times found Fernandez in a tile-roofed, pink, $225,000 house in Surfside. A late-model, black Mercedes with California tags was parked in the driveway. When a reporter knocked, the slim, 26-year-old Fernandez was just emerging from an afternoon shower with his dark hair slicked back and a patch of stubble on his chin. When the reporter identified himself, Fernandez slammed the door. A few seconds later, he emerged from the house in a flapping velvet shirt and chased the reporter down his driveway, snarling, "Hey fat boy, get off my property, you hear? Get off my property, you understand?" He stomped back to his house and disappeared without further comment.
A less hostile but no more pleasant side of Fernandez emerges from the Bar complaints and interviews with the people who contend he's bilked them of thousands of dollars.
Marie Toussaint says she made Fernandez's unwelcome acquaintance in March. The Miramar woman is engaged in a struggle with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, trying to adopt a girl from her native Haiti. Seeking Legal Aid, Toussaint called Fernandez, who said he'd help fulfill her American dream. "He said in less than a month, I will have my daughter with me," she remembers. His price was $500. He told her he'd take her case cheaply because he knew she was poor. All she had was $400, which he said would do for a start; she could pay him the rest when the paperwork was complete. She mailed a money order to his Brickell Avenue address. Two weeks later she sent the other $100 -- and never again heard from Fernandez.
"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.
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.
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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.