A Shakopee woman sued Tuesday by state Attorney General Lori Swanson is accused of falsely posing as an attorney and charging immigrants thousands of dollars for legal work on immigration matters that she was not legally authorized to perform and that was rife with crucial errors.
The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court against Ornella Hammerschmidt also names as defendants her companies American Group US Inc. and The Legacy Firm Corp.
The suit alleges that Spanish-speaking immigrants with limited English language proficiency were charged as much as $12,000 for poorly executed legal work on immigration matters such as assistance on applications for citizenship and asylum.
Hammerschmidt is not an attorney, the suit contends, but she presented herself as one, and held her companies out as being capable of providing immigration legal services.
The company often gave consumers a business card or other paperwork calling Hammerschmidt an “International Attorney,” according to the suit.
An attorney on behalf of Hammerschmidt and her husband, Mark, said Tuesday he was reviewing the allegations and was not ready to respond on their behalf.
“This is an example of someone exploiting the complexity and cost of the legal process to their own advantage and to the detriment of others,” Swanson said in a statement accompanying the filing of the suit.
Hammerschmidt and her companies, which the attorney general’s office said were operating as of last month, are also accused of taking money from clients for services that were not provided or delayed for lengthy periods of time, and falsifying signatures on immigration filings and prepared paperwork with wrong information.
Also, according to the suit:
• A woman said she paid $7,000 to have a visa application submitted on her behalf, but the application contained errors and falsified signatures, forcing the woman to withdraw the application through a new lawyer.
• A man said he paid $5,800 for help obtaining a work permit. After delays and repeated demands for more money, he learned the work permit had been issued in another person’s name.
• A woman said she told the defendants that facts in her asylum application were untrue, but they told her to submit the forms anyway. The filing of false forms with the Executive Office for Immigration Review can subject a client to harsh penalties, including deportation.
• A woman said she was ordered to be deported because the defendants failed to notify her about a court hearing and she missed the proceeding. Her new legal counsel is appealing the order.
In early 2012, search warrants unsealed in St. Paul showed that federal agents seized dozens of boxes of records and computer equipment from the office of American Group US and the nearby residence of Hammerschmidt and her husband, Mark.
An IRS agent said in a sworn statement that American Group and the Hammerschmidts were suspected of submitting more than 700 tax returns that included dubious claims and expense deductions resulting in more than $2.5 million in refunds.
A spokeswoman with U.S. attorney's office said Wednesday that federal authorities would not comment on what she termed an "active investigation."
The Hammerschmidts first came to the attention of federal investigators in 2004 when they were running an Orlando-based company called All Kinds Services. Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) alleged that the company helped foreigners to unlawfully obtain immigration benefits by arranging sham marriages.
In 2008, Hammerschmidt was indicted in Florida along with two relatives in a marriage and visa fraud conspiracy. News reports said ICE agents who raided All Kinds Services found a plastic wedding cake that “newlyweds” used as a photo prop, a fake reception hall and a rack with several wedding dresses.
At least 11 others charged separately in connection with that case pleaded guilty. But a judge threw out the charges against Hammerschmidt and her relatives after learning that an ICE agent had told a witness who was about to testify that she needed to identify a particular defendant. The judge ruled in February 2009 that federal prosecutors could not retry the case.
Shortly before that, however, Hammerschmidt and her husband, Mark, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, witness tampering, and destruction of evidence during the prosecution of the marriage fraud case. They struck a bargain, with each pleading guilty to fraud and misuse of a visa. They were sentenced in the summer of 2009 to three years of probation.