Judge orders record judgment against firms co-owned by Alameda couple

Judge orders record judgment against firms co-owned by Alameda couple

Michele Ellson

The City of Oakland obtained a record $15.1 million court judgment against a pair of immigration services firms co-owned by an Alameda couple, whose agents destroyed the lives of families who were led to believe the firm could help them win legal residence in the United States, a judge said.

The amount was nearly double the $8.2 million the Oakland City Attorney’s office had originally sought when they filed the case in 2010. City Manager John Russo was Oakland’s city attorney when the case was filed.

“Based on the overwhelming evidence presented herein and on the despicable nature of the conduct by the defendants in this matter, the Court holds the defendants to the full exposure allowed by law,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kimberly E. Colwell wrote in a decision issued November 7.

Colwell found that owners and agents of American Legal Services and Legal Experts, both based in Oakland, fraudulently held themselves out as attorneys who could help immigrants win work permits and legal residency in the U.S. and that they falsely claimed they could easily help them win those benefits – even when they knew they could not. The firms’ mishandling of the cases put members of two of the 18 families represented in the lawsuit into deportation proceedings and caused additional troubles for others, the judge found.

The firms were co-owned by Musa Bala Baldé and Irene Penaloza “Aiesha” Baldé, co-founders of the Islamic Center of Alameda who also led a pair of nonprofit groups; the website for one of the groups, Timbuktu Educational Foundation, appeared to be inactive Thursday, and the state Department of Justice's charity database listed its registration status as delinquent. Aiesha Baldé has sat on the city’s Housing Commission and on an advisory committee for the Alameda Food Bank and has been active in Alameda’s public schools, and particularly in promoting students’ understanding of Muslim traditions.

Aiesha Baldé, who said in a 2009 interview that she was a paralegal and immigration consultant, was also the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful suit which sought to obtain an opt-out for parents who don’t want their children to participate in elementary school lessons aimed at curbing anti-gay bullying.

In her decision, Colwell noted that defendants in the case including the Baldés repeatedly failed to show up for depositions and court hearings, and she said the couple’s attorney claimed the couple had informed her in August that they left the country. The couple did not return a message left at their listed home phone number.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the money to cover the judgment would come from, or how much of it would flow to the victims represented in the case; the businesses took in $140,000 a year, filings said. A spokesperson for Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Eighteen families were represented in the case, though Colwell said she believed that dozens more were also harmed by the firms’ conduct.

The case alleged the firms’ owners and agents fraudulently held themselves out as providers of legal services who could more easily and cheaply obtain residency and work permits for immigrants, but that they instead extracted money from their vulnerable clients while filing documents and providing advice that they knew would cause harm. It said the conduct stretched back to 2007.

In one case, they advised a client to skip a court hearing on his asylum claim and then sent a letter falsely claiming the client was ill which included the forged signature of a Fremont attorney, the judge’s decision says. In another case, they filed paperwork in an effort to win legal residency for an undocumented immigrant even when they should have known that the filing would land him in deportation proceedings.

Their actions wrought devastating effects on their clients, the judge found. One couple moved back to Mexico, leaving their sons in Oakland and forcing their teenage daughter to move in with relatives in Southern California; in another case, a woman and her daughter were barred from returning to the U.S., leaving her husband here to raise the couple’s younger daughter alone. The son of a third plaintiff in the suit was forced to withdraw from a four-year university and enroll in community college because his family needed more money to fix the damage the firms had wrought, the decision says.

Colwell said state law barring such conduct provides a vehicle for some redress, but that money can’t fix the pain the firms’ actions caused.

“(W)ithout question, the monetary compensation the (law) offers falls well short of holidays together as a family, the ability to offer guidance to one’s children, and close familial contact that is the bedrock of family life,” Colwell wrote.