By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At first, Key told the Observer that Hierro was "just an employee" at Shelton's law firm who quit because she found out about Shelton's criminal background, which includes a felony conviction for shooting her ex-boyfriend, former Houston Post reporter Gary Taylor.
Later, Key confirmed that he had helped defend Hierro against allegations made by several clients who told a local Hispanic television station that Hierro was stealing money intended to pay for legal representation from Shelton. Key argued that Shelton took the clients' money and failed to represent them.
The Observer, however, has learned that Hierro's work with Shelton on immigration cases was far more extensive than Key initially claimed and that Key's own involvement with Hierro may extend beyond an attorney-client relationship.
Some of the documents the Observer has gathered, including copies of money-order receipts bearing what appears to be Shelton's signature, suggest that Shelton was profiting from immigration cases. But the documents and Hierro's ex-clients also support Shelton's contention that Hierro spearheaded the duo's immigration business and later duplicated the business in the West End as president of her own company.
Shelton declined to speak with the Observer, but a description of her relationship with Hierro is contained in a four-page letter that her attorney Steven Lee wrote to the State Bar last July. At the time, the Bar was investigating complaints about Shelton's immigration practice made by former clients, including a woman who later signed a contract for legal representation with Hierro at MH Immigration Services.
"In about September of 1998, Ms. Hierro suggested an expansion of the law practice to include immigration services. The general concept and pitch was that Ms. Hierro, in previous employment, had developed experience in immigration matters," Lee wrote. "The overall idea was that Ms. Hierro and support staff would perform immigration consultant tasks."
According to Lee, unhappy clients soon began to call Shelton with complaints about their cases, and Shelton tried to resolve the problem by telling Hierro to refer complicated cases to outside lawyers who specialize in immigration law. But that didn't work. In March 1999, when Lee says Shelton tried to rein in Hierro, Hierro abruptly quit, taking her support staff and the immigration files with her. Afraid that Hierro might have violated federal laws, Shelton told the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office about her experience with Hierro.
Lee further claims that Hierro soon began writing Shelton's clients on Shelton law-office letterhead, "telling them that in order to obtain a refund of their fees they should come meet with Hierro at her office," where Hierro helped them draft complaints about Shelton, allegedly charging them $75 for the effort.
Lee did not respond to messages left by the Observer, but Alejandra confirms part of his story: She says Hierro pressured her into filing a complaint against Shelton to get a refund that Hierro would use to continue Alejandra's case.
"Marisa said, if you don't file a complaint with the State Bar, Ms. Shelton will call Immigration," says Alejandra, who never dealt directly with Shelton on any immigration matters. It was only later, when Hierro herself threatened to report her to the INS because she refused to give her more money, that Alejandra concluded she had been duped.
Attorney R. Michael Thomas, who left Shelton's practice shortly after the immigration business took off, affirms that Hierro was the brains behind it and that Hierro later helped about 30 clients file complaints against Shelton.
"Marisa is a very bright, resourceful lady," Thomas says. "Her big thing was that she set up an immigration practice. She'd help do the marketing, the paperwork. She had some software that she'd voluntarily brought into the firm. She was a master at getting people into the office and getting their money. I thought it was OK for her to do what she was doing on her own. I really did."
Thomas may have believed that what Hierro did was OK, but Texas law is less generous. Filling out INS forms clearly constitutes the practice of law, according to court precedents that have been in effect for 15 years, says attorney Paul Parsons, who for years has monitored rogue notarios and unethical attorneys who operate immigration scams.
"Just knowing which forms to select and file and whether or not to file them involves legal judgments," Parsons says. When unsupervised legal assistants or independent notarios fill out INS forms, Parsons says, they are effectively practicing law without a license.
At the same time, the State Bar of Texas could possibly hold Shelton responsible for Hierro's behavior and either suspend or revoke her law licenses.
"If the non-lawyer is doing all the work and the lawyer really isn't involved at all, that can be aiding and abetting the unauthorized practice of law," Parsons says. "The lawyer is responsible for supervising directly the non-attorney employees."
Evidently, that was the issue that State Bar investigators raised last summer, according to the letter Lee wrote last July. In the letter, Lee acknowledged that Shelton could be held liable for clients who were wronged by Hierro's work, but he argued that Shelton didn't know of or sanction Hierro's activities.