Assistant AG in the ECONOMIC CRIMES DIV_ERIN CULLARO

By SHANNON BEHNKEN and MICHAEL SASSO

sbehnken@tampatrib.com msasso@tampatrib.com

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.

Erin Cullaro, a former employee of the foreclosure firm, now works as
an assistant
attorney general
in Tampa for the Economic
Crimes Division
of the attorney general’s office.

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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2 thoughts on “Assistant AG in the ECONOMIC CRIMES DIV_ERIN CULLARO

  1. Substantiated Allegations of Fraud That Implicates the Florida Attorney General’s Office and The Florida Default Law Grouphttp://4closurefraud.org/2010/03/26/scandalous-substantiated-allegations-of-foreclosure-fraud-that-implicates-the-florida-attorney-generals-office-and-the-florida-default-law-group/

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