The Press is Listening!!!
By SHANNON BEHNKEN and MICHAEL SASSO
Published: May 1, 2010
TAMPA – The Florida Attorney General’s Office said Friday that it is investigating the involvement one of its attorneys had with one of the state’s largest foreclosure firms.
This comes a day after the office said it is investigating the firm, Tampa-based Florida Default Law Group, for what “appears to be fabricating and/or presenting false and misleading documents in foreclosure cases.” The investigation is a civil action, rather than a criminal probe.
Florida Default Law Group represents lenders and mortgage servicing companies in foreclosure lawsuits and other real estate matters. Such firms, which frequently process hundreds or thousands of foreclosure cases a month, are sometimes referred to as “foreclosure mills” in the legal field.
While working for the attorney general’s office, Cullaro was approved to work as a notary for the foreclosure firm, the state law enforcement agency said. Her conduct in that role is now being questioned in connection with an ongoing foreclosure lawsuit that alleges her role was a conflict of interest and that her notarized signatures were inconsistent. Court documents assert that she signed off on documents while out of town on business with the attorney general’s office.
“Any suggestion that one of our attorneys might have been involved in improper activities while engaged as a notary outside of her scope of employment with this office is troubling,” said Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. “The attorney general has asked his inspector general to thoroughly investigate this matter.”
Cullaro could not be reached for comment. John Cullaro, her husband, represents her in the case and said he has no comment. Also, the Tribune was unable to reach representatives of Florida Default Law Group on Thursday or Friday.
Meanwhile, the lawyer who raised the questions about Cullaro said he is pleased the matter is being taken seriously.
“This is shocking that one of the attorney general’s own attorneys was helping to execute documents on behalf of the very company it is now investigating,” said Tom Ice of Ice Legal in West Palm Beach.
Ice detailed his questions in court documents filed in the 7th Judicial Circuit in Volusia County. Ice said Cullaro worked as a lawyer with Florida Default Group before she worked for the attorney general’s office. When she left the firm, she continued to serve as an expert witness for the firm, signing affidavits to establish that the firm’s fees were reasonable.
Her sister-in-law, Lisa Cullaro, notarized the affidavits, according to court documents. When Erin started work for the attorney general’s office, the Cullaros changed roles: Lisa Cullaro served as the expert witness, and Erin Cullaro notarized the documents.
Ice said both Lisa and Erin Cullaro’s signatures varied in appearance, and he wants to question the two about it. The Cullaros, through lawyers, protested, but a Volusia County judge agreed in early April to allow Ice to ask the two limited questions. This has not yet happened.
Ice thinks the questions may help his foreclosure lawsuit. In that case, Florida Default Law Group is representing Wells Fargo Bank.
Lisa and Erin Cullaro are no longer witnesses or notaries for the firm, but Ice is troubled about the familial relationship of the firm’s new expert witness: John Cullaro, Erin Cullaro’s husband.
John Cullaro refused to listen to a reporter’s questions about the allegations.
This is at least the second time Florida Default Law Group or the firm’s head, Michael Echevarria, has drawn scrutiny for the way it handled affidavits for attorney fees.
In 2004, The Florida Bar reprimanded Echevarria for violating certain Bar rules, one of which concerned attorney fees. According to Bar documents, Echevarria’s law firm asked a Land O’ Lakes attorney named Anthony Woodward to certify that Echevarria’s legal fees were reasonable, given the amount of time the firm spent on each case.
Instead of reviewing each foreclosure case fully, as he was supposed to do, Woodward was simply signing documents attesting to the fairness of Echevarria’s fees. Each time Woodward signed his name to a document, he received a $2 fee, the Bar documents show. When reached for comment Friday, Woodward referred a reporter to his own Florida Bar disciplinary case file, which was not available late Friday.
Several months ago, Woodward told a Tribune reporter that Echevarria’s legal fees – about $1,000 per foreclosure case – were so low he was confident they were reasonable even without reviewing each case.
Florida Default Law Group is among the biggest foreclosure law firms in Florida. Last fall, the Tribune reviewed 1,994 initial foreclosure documents filed in Hillsborough County in October. That month, the firm filed 323 foreclosure cases in Hillsborough County, second only to Plantation-based Law Offices of David J. Stern.
It wasn’t clear Friday why the attorney general’s office chose to reveal its investigation into Florida Default Law Group, considering that the agency hasn’t yet taken any action against the firm.
Jim Kowalski, a Jacksonville-based lawyer who frequently represents homeowners in foreclosure cases, said he has not seen Florida’s attorney general disclose investigations early. However, it’s not uncommon in some other states, such as New York.
In some cases, state attorneys general reveal an investigation to encourage other parties to cooperate in an investigation, Kowalski said.
Reporter Shannon Behnken can be reached at (813) 259-7804. Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865.
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