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Woman Charged with Bilking 31 Legal Clients

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 8 -- A local woman charged with bilking 31 clients out of more than $60,000 while posing or acting illegally as an attorney surrendered to Santa Monica police late Monday.

Anita Laureen Clark surrendered after the City Attorney's Office filed a 41-count criminal complaint against her for posing as an attorney, posing as a paralegal but acting as an attorney, and other violations of the law. Clark was released after posting bail of $150,000.

"This is definitely by far the most prolific violation of (unauthorized practice) in Santa Monica," said Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, who heads the Consumer Protection Unit. "We found widespread violations.

"The case is really a double red flag," Radinsky said. "Consumers who think they can't afford a lawyer should be very careful about whom they hire, and would-be paralegals had better be working for an attorney."

Clark -- who according to Radinsky was practicing in a wide range of legal areas, including immigration -- is charged with 15 counts of grand theft by fraud; 21 counts of practicing law without a license; and 5 counts of posing as an immigration consultant without the required bond.

Clark "apparently had many offices throughout the Southland, some in the Valley, some on the Westside and two in Santa Monica at various times," Radinsky said.

Clark -- whose Santa Monica paralegal offices were in Ocean Park near Main Street and on Wilshire Boulevard -- operated under several business names, including Clark and Clark Paralegal, A. Clark and Associates and A.C. and Associates.

"There had been many complaints and small claims cases, but this is the first time we're aware of that she has been criminally prosecuted," Radinsky said.

Clark could not be reached for comment.

The Consumer Protection Unit began investigating Clark earlier this year after several clients complained they had hired her to perform legal work and didn't receive the services promised, Radinsky said.

On August 7, 2003, Santa Monica police executed a search warrant and seized files from Clark's Wilshire office. After a nearly four-month investigation, the Consumer Protection Unit filed the criminal charges against Clark on December 1.

Clark, who is not a lawyer, is accused of bilking 31 clients out of a total of $60,152, with two of the victims paying her more than $10,000 each. Clark is accused of doing nothing for the victims after receiving full payment up front; posing as an attorney; falsely claiming that her husband is an attorney; and practicing law without a license, Radinsky said.

"Consumers with legal problems are looking for a way to avoid the expense of hiring an attorney," Radinsky said. "What they should know is that a non-lawyer who gives them any kind of legal help is probably breaking the law -- unless he or she works under a lawyer."

Under state law, it is a crime for a person to practice law without being a licensed attorney, Radinsky said. "Practicing law" includes almost any task that a lawyer typically does -- giving legal advice, making legal decisions in a case, claiming to be an expert in an area of law, contacting the opposing party and writing legal documents.

Non-attorneys can only provide purely clerical assistance (such as typing legal documents chosen by the client) or doing paralegal work directly under a supervising attorney, Radinsky said.

Clark also is charged with illegally acting as an immigration consultant with five of the clients, Radinsky said. By law, all immigration consultants must post a $50,000 bond with the Secretary of State, among other requirements.

Clark never posted a bond, but still got thousands of dollars from victims after promising to handle their immigration legal problems, Radinsky said.

If convicted, Clark faces maximum penalties of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each of the 15 grand theft counts and for each of the 21 Unauthorized Practice of Law counts. She faces maximum penalties of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine for each of the 5 immigration consultant violations.

Clark's arraignment is set for January 6 in the Santa Monica Municipal Court.

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