Im­mi­grants mis­led by man pos­ing as at­tor­ney

Je­sus Lozano took money from those seek­ing legal help

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Linthicum

Five years ago, a Gu­atemalan im­mi­grant named Oliver Ortega sought help from Je­sus Lozano.

Lozano’s busi­ness card ad­ver­tised a range of legal ser­vices next to a pic­ture of the scales of jus­tice. His book­shelves were lined with two sets of the Cal­i­for­nia Pe­nal Code.

Lozano told Ortega he was an at­tor­ney and promised to help him file a wage claim against a for­mer em­ployer, ac­cord­ing to a law­suit filed against Lozano. Ortega said he paid Lozano $400 in cash to begin work.

But soon, Lozano stopped re­turn­ing calls and show­ing up for meet­ings, Ortega said. When Ortega went to the state La­bor Com­mis­sioner, he found out no claim had been filed — and that Lozano wasn’t ac­tu­ally a lawyer.

Lozano, it turned out, had been tak­ing money from im­mi­grants for years, falsely claim­ing to be an at­tor­ney who could rep­re­sent them in an ar­ray of court pro­ceed­ings, in­clud­ing la­bor, per­sonal in­jury and im­mi­gra­tion cases, ac­cord­ing to court records and in­ter­views.

In De­cem­ber, two un­der­cover Los An­ge­les County in­ves­ti­ga­tors went to Lozano’s of­fice

and recorded him agree­ing to help on an im­mi­gra­tion case, ac­cord­ing to crim­i­nal charges filed this year by Los An­ge­les City Atty. Mike Feuer. This spring, Lozano pleaded no con­test to three mis­de­meanor crim­i­nal counts: prac­tic­ing law with­out a li­cense, act­ing as an im­mi­gra­tion con­sul­tant with­out reg­is­ter­ing with the state, and vi­o­lat­ing an ear­lier in­junc­tion.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors say fraud tar­get­ing im­mi­grants is wide­spread in Cal­i­for­nia. In the last decade, for ex­am­ple, the L.A. County Depart­ment of Con­sumer Af­fairs re­ceived 328 com­plaints about peo­ple il­le­gally giv­ing im­mi­gra­tion ad­vice. More than 30 of those cases re­sulted in pros­e­cu­tions, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment.

Lan­guage and cul­tural bar­ri­ers make im­mi­grants sus­cep­ti­ble to scams, said Onica Cole, who works in the con­sumer pro­tec­tion unit in the city at­tor­ney’s of­fice. Those who are in the coun­try il­le­gally are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble be­cause they may be afraid to re­port wrong­do­ing, Cole said, mak­ing it “in some ways the per­fect crime.”

Lozano took ad­van­tage of such fears, records show, some­times threat­en­ing to re­port un­happy clients to im­mi­gra­tion agents if they com­plained.

His con­vic­tion was the re­sult of a new city-county task force tar­get­ing those who prey on im­mi­grants. Rigo Reyes, chief of in­ves­ti­ga­tions for the county’s con­sumer af­fairs depart­ment, said the task force fills a hole, since there is no state agency fo­cused on pros­e­cut­ing crimes against im­mi­grants.

Lozano, Reyes said, sim­ply ex­ploited an open­ing.

“Peo­ple trusted him,” Reyes said. “And he told them what they wanted to hear.”

First or­dered by a judge to stop pro­vid­ing legal ser­vices in 2003, Lozano con­tin­ued to pose as an at­tor­ney for more than a decade, court records show. He was twice found in civil court to have vi­o­lated that in­junc­tion. In court set­tle­ments, he agreed to pay back 10 vic­tims, in­clud­ing Ortega, although he has yet to fully re­pay any of them.

Ortega, who said he lost out on the re­cov­ery of two years of back pay be­cause of the de­lay in fil­ing his La­bor Com­mis­sion claim, said it was an injustice that Lozano was able to con­tinue op­er­at­ing for so long, even af­ter he came on the radar of the legal sys­tem.

“It’s a tragedy,” Ortega said. “I al­most lost my house. I hope this time he has to pay.”

Un­der a plea deal, Lozano agreed to serve at least 90 days in jail and be placed on three years’ pro­ba­tion. Sen­tenc­ing is sched­uled to take place this month af­ter inves- tiga­tors tally the resti­tu­tion owed to vic­tims. The state bar, which is no­ti­fy­ing Lozano’s clients of the case against him, has seized files on nearly 200 clients in two raids on Lozano’s of­fice, ac­cord­ing to bar spokes­woman Laura Ernde.

Lozano was or­dered to stay away from his of­fice, in a third-floor cor­ner suite over­look­ing Van Nuys Boule­vard, as part of the deal. But on a re­cent morn­ing he was there, seated at a large desk strewn with tax doc­u­ments and what ap­peared to be legal pa­per­work.

Short and wide-waisted, with gold rings on both hands, Lozano seemed tired and ag­grieved. “There’s a big injustice be­ing done to me,” he be­gan. “I’m be­ing picked on.”

Lozano said he had set­tled with the vic­tims and agreed to the plea deal with the city only be­cause he didn’t have the re­sources to fight the cases against him. He said he wasn’t out to hurt any­body, and was sim­ply meet­ing a de­mand for legal ser­vices in Span­ish.

He said he rec­og­nized the need for such ser­vices early, at age 12, when an un­cle brought him along to traf­fic court to help trans­late. Back then, the courts weren’t re­quired to pro­vide Span­ish in­ter­preters.

Born in Mex­ico and brought to the U.S. at a young age by his par­ents, Lozano said he had picked up English quickly at his Van Nuys el­e­men­tary school. He said the judge com­pli­mented his lan­guage skills. So he re­turned to court the fol­low­ing week, of­fer­ing to trans­late for other Span­ish speak­ers for 50 cents or a dollar.

Later, he went to work for lawyers, he said, in­ter­pret­ing and bring­ing them Latino clients. Lozano said he thought about law school, but by then he had a wife and two chil­dren. “I didn’t have the money,” he said.

Even­tu­ally Lozano opened his own busi­ness, West Coast Legal Ser­vices. He said most of his work was re­fer­ring peo­ple to le­git­i­mate lawyers, but said he also filed out var­i­ous legal forms, in­clud­ing im­mi­gra­tion doc­u­ments, for peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford pro­fes­sion­als. He wasn’t li­censed to do so. Cal­i­for­nia’s Im­mi­gra­tion Con­sult­ing Act re­quires con­sul­tants to be bonded and to pass a back­ground check con­ducted by the sec­re­tary of State.

Del­fina and Faustino Donato, an im­mi­grant cou­ple who lost some of their pos- ses­sions in a 2001 apart­ment fire, said Lozano told them he was a li­censed at­tor­ney. In a civil law­suit filed on their be­half in 2002 by Neigh­bor­hood Legal Ser­vices of Los An­ge­les County, they said they gave Lozano $800 to sue their land­lord, but that he did noth­ing for their case.

Ros­alio So­lis, an­other plain­tiff in the law­suit, said he had paid Lozano to seek dam­ages af­ter he was in­volved in a car ac­ci­dent. Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, Lozano told So­lis to ap­pear in court six times for trial, but each time, Lozano did not ap­pear.

In 2003 a Su­pe­rior Court judge per­ma­nently barred Lozano from do­ing any legal work, in­clud­ing “as­sist­ing in­di­vid­u­als to fill out plead­ings, mo­tions, and court forms or other doc­u­ments and pro­vid­ing coun­sel or ad- vice re­lated to any legal mat­ter.” Lozano set­tled, agree­ing to pay the Donatos $15,000 and So­lis $10,000.

But even af­ter be­ing found in contempt of that or­der a year later and serv­ing 10 days in jail, Lozano con­tin­ued his op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to a sec­ond contempt case filed against him by Neigh­bor­hood Legal Ser­vices in 2012.

That year, Lozano showed up in a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia court­room and pre­sented him­self as an at­tor­ney work­ing for the fam­ily of a man who was fac­ing drug charges, ac­cord­ing to court state­ments by Jes­sica Del­gado, a Santa Clara County public de­fender who was rep­re­sent­ing the man on trial.

Del­gado said she be­came an­gry when she found out the drug de­fen­dant’s mother had paid Lozano about $4,000 for help on the case.

“There is an ab­so­lute short­age of bilin­gual crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­neys,” Del­gado said. “This is a vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion. You have peo­ple who are dis­ad­van­taged, and on top of that you have some­one who is preda­tory. It’s just adding an injustice.”

In 2013, Lozano was found in contempt of court again, and he agreed to serve more jail time and to pay resti­tu­tion to seven ad­di­tional vic­tims, in­clud­ing more than $16,000 to Ortega.

But in­stead of pay­ing back his for­mer clients — or show­ing up to serve his jail time — Lozano filed for bank­ruptcy later that year. In fil­ings, he re­ported a monthly in­come of $800 and few pos­ses­sions be­sides a 1991 Mercedes-Benz. He sought to dis­charge the debts he owed his vic­tims.

The vic­tims, in­clud­ing Ortega, So­lis and the Donatos, have ar­gued in bank­ruptcy court that the debts should not be dis­missed.

Lozano said he plans to sup­port his fam­ily and pay back his debts with monthly So­cial Se­cu­rity pay­ments. He in­sisted that he is closing his of­fice.

“I’m gonna lock up shop and that’s it, for­get it,” Lozano said. “I’m re­tired, I’m get­ting my check.”

‘It’s a tragedy. I al­most lost my house. I hope this time he has to pay.’

— Oliver Ortega, a Gu­atemalan im­mi­grant who sought help from Je­sus Lozano

Pho­tog raphs by Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

OLIVER ORTEGA, shown out­side Je­sus Lozano’s Van Nuys of­fice, said he paid Lozano $400 to help him file a wage claim. Ortega later found no claim had been filed — and that Lozano wasn’t ac­tu­ally a lawyer.

AS PART of a plea deal, Je­sus Lozano was or­dered to stay away from his of­fice on Van Nuys Boule­vard. But on a re­cent morn­ing he was there.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

JE­SUS LOZANO leaves his of­fice in April. He pleaded no con­test to prac­tic­ing law with­out a li­cense and act­ing as an im­mi­gra­tion con­sul­tant with­out reg­is­ter­ing with the state. He in­sists he is closing the of­fice.

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