Victims in the shadows

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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.

"Unless she was complicit in the former employee's wrongful acts or ordered, engaged, or permitted known wrongful acts, Ms. Shelton has not committed professional misconduct," wrote Lee.

Although Shelton was the subject of State Bar hearings scheduled last summer, Bar officials won't comment on the investigation. The Bar, which is notoriously secretive about its disciplinary actions, has a policy of not commenting on any cases until formal action is taken against an attorney's license.

While at least two Dallas attorneys have complained about Hierro to the Dallas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee (UPL), it is not known whether the organization has begun an investigation into her business.

Key says he couldn't comment about any complaints made against Hierro because he hasn't seen them, but he characterized allegations that she misled her clients as unsubstantiated gossip spread by reporters following the December 20 ambush.

"There's no merit to them. We've seen all of this before. When you get right down to it, there's nothing there," says Key, who hasn't received any notice that Hierro is the subject of any inquiries and doubts that she will become one. "If she's not in the business anymore, there would be nothing to investigate."

Key may have reason to hope that an investigation never begins. The Observer has confirmed that Hierro and Key have appeared together on behalf of at least one client in immigration court and that Key's registered address in the court is the same as Hierro's now-defunct West End business.

One person who complained about Hierro was Fernando Dubove, who notified the Dallas UPL Committee last year after he saw an advertisement for her immigration services Hierro published in a Spanish-language newspaper. When he checked out the address of the business, Dubove says, it traced back to Key's office.

Thinking Hierro was using Key's address without his permission, Dubove says, he called Key as a professional courtesy to warn him. Key explained that Hierro rented office space there but had no affiliation with him. Dubove says he forgot about the matter until one day, about three months ago, when he noticed a new attorney in the immigration court who was doing what he describes as a noticeably poor job representing his client. The attorney was Key, who was there with Hierro.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley