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Victimized homeowners' advocate is not a lawyer

Gerardo and Mercedes Santiago of Kissimmee first fell victim to a mortgage scheme that nearly cost them their house. Then, when they sought help to stave off foreclosure, they became victims again, they say.

Like dozens of other Hispanic residents across Florida, they faced eviction because of their dealings with now-closed mortgage company 4 Solutions of Tampa. And like many of those 4 Solutions customers, they called Barbara Hernandez of Orlando after reading an ad in Spanish newspaper El Nuevo Dia where she offered to help people involved with the company.

The residents say that she promised they'd get their houses back. That she said she'd lead them in a class-action lawsuit. That for only $50 a month, she'd help them file papers and go to court with them. About 80 families turned to her.

The problem? She isn't a lawyer.

Her promises of help soon devolved into higher demands for money, threats that she'd sue the Santiagos, and an ominous note on their car, according to a complaint filed with the Florida Bar.

Roberto Cruz, an attorney with the Legal Advocacy Center of Central Florida, recently filed the complaint against Hernandez alleging unlicensed practice of law. Cruz of Sanford represents several residents hurt in deals worked out by 4 Solutions. That company has been accused of tricking homeowners into selling their houses to straw buyers, who'd sap the equity. When the market declined, many of the homes went into foreclosure. The Secret Service is investigating the company.

In the aftermath of the 4 Solutions mess, Hernandez gave legal advice, filed pleadings and represented clients for monthly fees plus expenses, the complaint states. She also dissuaded them from seeking advice from experienced attorneys.

Cruz wrote in a news release about the complaint that he appreciates Hernandez's good intentions to help these people, but to save their homes, they needed a real attorney.

"After all, like the Spanish proverb says: "Hell is full of good intentions and heaven of good deeds," Cruz wrote. He did not return a call for comment Thursday.

But Hernandez, in a phone interview, said she never acted as a lawyer. She said the payments were always voluntary, to help her cover expenses as she advocated for the Hispanic residents.

"I never charged nobody," she said. "I don't speak English well. How am I going to be a lawyer?"

According to sworn statement filed by Cruz, the Santiagos met with Hernandez and paid her for expenses, including gas. At first the payments were voluntary, but then she started demanding $50 payments, then $100 on the 15th of every month, the affidavits say. One time, she called Gerardo Santiago and demanded $300 for a trip to Peru, where she believed one of 4 Solutions' owners was living, Santiago said in his statement.

When he questioned it, she started yelling at him, threatening and insulting him, he said. He gave her $200.

At another point, she went with him to a court hearing, but the judge asked her to sit aside because she was not an attorney, Santiago's affidavit said.

A few days later, after he had failed to pay her $100 for some paperwork she provided, she left a note under his windshield wiper stating that the car was pretty but she needed the money immediately, Santiago said in his affidavit.

Later, as the payment dispute continued, Santiago's affidavit said, Hernandez "yelled at me and said that she swear that she is going to make sure I lose my house and that she was going to take us out of the class action lawsuit."

Hernandez said the Santiagos are out to get her for unrelated reasons and "whatever they say, they have to prove."

Hernandez also said she'd help Vivian Martell of Orlando, according to an affidavit from Martell.

Martell also thought she had refinanced her home through 4 Solutions, but she actually sold it. It was in foreclosure.

Martell paid Hernandez $50 in cash three times, but she stopped meeting with her because Hernandez didn't have the legal knowledge needed, she said in a statement.

When Martell told Hernandez she was going to have attorney Cruz represent her, Hernandez said not to and that he had told her that he wouldn't represent them.

"However, Mr. Cruz never spoke with her," Martell wrote. "I feel like she tried to confuse us."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Victimized homeowners' advocate is not a lawyer 10/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 10:02pm]
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