Edward Jonak of Blaine operates a business called Affordable Law Center, advertises under "Attorneys" in the Yellow Pages, and says he has helped people facing bankruptcy, divorce and other legal issues for 18 years.
Jonak is not a lawyer. Nor do any of his businesses employ lawyers. For a fee, he can provide forms, referrals to lawyers and typists or even find you a bail bondsman.
Yet concerns about his business practices have prompted legal actions in four states that allege Jonak provided legal advice or illegally prepared bankruptcy documents. Earlier this month, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota put out a public warning about Affordable Law Center, describing a "clear pattern of deception on the part of this company."
"They have advertised themselves as legal experts here and in other states, when in fact they are not," said BBB president Dana Badgerow.
Jonak counters that only two complaints were filed against his business with the BBB in the past three years, and both were resolved. Despite the pressure of lawsuits, the government and the BBB, Jonak says he has done nothing wrong and has no intention of closing his business.
"It's driven by attorneys that don't like the lower prices that people are able to get through our organization," he said. "If you don't do much business, they leave you alone. But according to the Department of Justice I'm the biggest organization of my kind in the state."
"When you really start digging into it, you start seeing real clearly, 'Who's this guy hurting?'" he added.
That depends on whom you ask.
Customers don't appear to be up in arms, based on the lack of complaints to the BBB.
A 68-year-old customer from Biwabik told Whistleblower that she was satisfied with the help she got. She said Jonak advised her on how to go about filing for bankruptcy and gave her forms to fill out. She paid $580 for the service. "It was way cheaper than what I could afford to pay a regular lawyer," said the customer, who didn't want her name used.
"I've never had to give a refund to anyone," Jonak said.
But in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court action that seeks to stop Jonak from accepting fees in connection with bankruptcy cases, providing legal advice or representing that he can refer customers to lawyers, former customers testified about confusion and unexpected fees when dealing with Jonak.
Robert Mattfield testified that he "thought he was receiving legal services from the Defendant."
Kim and Kristi Francisco testified that "they were not sure if the Defendant was an attorney or not" and that they thought the fee paid to Jonak entitled them to representation at a meeting of creditors.
Other customers testified to receiving active advice from Jonak.
"Defendant told [Gayle Kersting] that the value assigned to her property on schedule B was not important, and [she] was advised not to turn over a canoe to the trustee because the trustee would never come and get it," court records state.
As a result of court actions, Jonak has been banned from preparing bankruptcy documents in Colorado; selling legal plans, giving legal advice and preparing bankruptcy documents in the Western District of Wisconsin; providing "any bankruptcy-related services" in the Western district of Missouri or accepting any fees from its residents.
Jonak said in an interview that he agreed to stop providing the services in those states because he had very few customers and because he doesn't actually provide those services anyway.
A lawsuit filed in St. Louis County last year that accused Jonak of the unauthorized practice of law was dismissed in January, after Jonak agreed to refrain from offering legal advice, preparing legal documents or furnishing the services of a lawyer.
The District of Minnesota bankruptcy court case is awaiting a judge's decision. Since Jonak conducts so much business in the state, he and his lawyer said they would appeal any adverse decision.
"Our state has yet to define a bankruptcy petition preparer. This order that's pending would be the case to do that," said Jonak's attorney, Karla Kluzak.
While awaiting that decision, Jonak is looking ahead.
In January 2011, he registered a new business with the Minnesota secretary of state, AffordableCourtServices.org. "That's the business I opened up when they started attacking Affordable Law Center," he said.
Badgerow, with the BBB, said "he's had this whole variety of names, and when he gets in trouble in one place he either ducks out of that area and/or changes his name. ... He's just putting on a little different mask but behind the curtain it's still Ed Jonak."
When Whistleblower asked how he's able to tell customers for his businesses apart, Jonak said: "Let's put it this way. I simply answer the phone and they tell me what they're calling about and I get them assisted in setting them up with a legal plan."
Jonak has not allowed Affordable Law Center to languish. Its website now markets its services to Nevada and California customers. Jonak said he allows another person to use his "business model" and have access to his "program attorneys" in exchange for a percentage of sales.
"I have somebody that handles Wisconsin. It's another person," Jonak said.
He also said he's in discussions with other potential business partners across the country.
The Wisconsin order stipulated that Jonak shall not "individually; in tandem with others; or by or through an entity of any type" offer to provide legal services or advice to residents of the District of Western Wisconsin.
But as Kluzak pointed out, "there are two districts in Wisconsin."