She owes immigrant victims $1 million, but she’s working in Boston for free
Glamorous and charismatic, Stella Figueredo lured thousands of immigrants to her offices with the promise of green cards and US citizenship, investigators said, and then charged them exorbitant fees for services she did not provide. When New York’s top prosecutor shuttered her organization in 2010, he ordered her to pay victims $1.2 million and to never perform immigration work in that state again.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, now the governor, warned that the crackdown on Figueredo’s nonprofit should send a message that “individuals who try to take advantage of immigrants will not get away with it in New York State.”
But six years later, New York officials say Figueredo still owes $1 million of the restitution, plus interest, to compensate 1,400 victims. Officials said they recovered only $200,000, from the sale of her multimillion-dollar house in New Jersey, but then lost track of her.
The Globe has confirmed that Figueredo is now in Massachusetts, admittedly working for free for her daughter Johanna Herrero’s thriving immigration law firm. In New York, she was famous as Stella. But on Boston’s historic State Street, she goes by Julia.
The case raises questions about why Figueredo has failed to pay her victims and whether officials in Massachusetts and New York could have done more to find her.
A spokesman for New York’s current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the agency has not disbursed the money from the sale of Figueredo’s house because they hope to collect the full amount.
“Figueredo defrauded thousands of hard-working immigrants, and we will use every legal tool at our disposal to ensure justice and full restitution for the victims of her fraudulent operation,” the office said in a statement.
The New York attorney general’s office started investigating Figueredo in 2009 as thousands of immigrants poured into her offices in Manhattan, Queens, and elsewhere. At its peak, her organization, the American Immigrant Federation and its affiliates, had 20,000 clients. But after subpoenaing hundreds of her documents, New York officials said they found that she illegally overcharged immigrants, defrauded them with “false promises” of US citizenship, and engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
Born in Paraguay, Figueredo courted clients through radio shows and a talk show on Spanish language TV. At first, she charged immigrants a $100 annual membership fee to provide free or low-cost legal services. But gradually costs ballooned into thousands of dollars to prepare and file immigration applications. Investigators said the federation allowed non-lawyers to handle immigrants’ files, often with “disastrous consequences.”
Many immigrants faced deportation after her office handled their cases, according to the state of New York.
In April 2010, Figueredo signed a settlement that required her to close her offices, never provide immigration services in New York again, and repay former clients in exchange for the attorney general dropping the case. She did not admit or deny wrongdoing.
Months later, Cuomo was elected governor and the case faded. In 2013, a news article said the New York attorney general’s office was looking for Figueredo. Around that time, according to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, New York officials tipped them off that Figueredo might be here.
Massachusetts officials said they did not find Figueredo operating here and do not have the authority to seek restitution for New York.
Figueredo was hard to trace: In Massachusetts she is known as Julia — which her daughter’s lawyer says is her given name — and the Globe could not find her in state public records. And although she frequents her daughter’s law office, her name is absent from the staff list in the Boston law firm, which is known for its prodigious use of social media.
Johanna Herrero, her 31-year-old daughter, is a licensed lawyer and managing partner at the firm and a cousin, Ricardo Figueredo, is a paralegal. Herrero and her cousin used to work for Figueredo in New York but were not implicated in the investigation or her 2010 settlement.
The Globe observed Figueredo at her daughter’s bustling law offices on several occasions last month, carrying file folders or sitting in an office, at times leaving well after the 5 p.m. closing time. Often when she left for the day, Figueredo slipped into a silver Acura waiting outside to drive her away. On at least one day, Figueredo was in the office while her daughter was not.
In a brief interview at her daughter’s law office, Figueredo at first denied that she had been president of the American Immigrant Federation. Wearing a neat jacket with her hair pulled back, she emerged from an office and said her name was Julia Herrero.
She acknowledged her identity only after she ushered the Globe reporter into a private office and the reporter showed her federal tax records linking her to the New York nonprofit.
Figueredo said she was unable to pay back the money because she is unpaid.
“I’m not working here,” she said in Spanish. “This is my daughter’s law office. I only come here to help.”
Figueredo said she was not handling immigration cases and was just “helping with the accounts.” She noted that she lost her house through the settlement.
“All I could give, I gave,” she said.
But others questioned why Figueredo is working for free when she has to repay hundreds of victims.
“[Figueredo] is fully aware that she needs to pay restitution to her victims and she should be making an honest effort to do that,” Fernando Aquino, spokesman for the New York attorney general’s office, said in a statement.
Herrero, Figueredo’s daughter, referred questions to her lawyer, Howard Cooper. He emphasized that Herrero was not accused of wrongdoing by the New York attorney general’s office and was a young student in her 20s when her mother lost everything. Cooper said that Figueredo was helping out “administratively” at Herrero’s office and confirmed that she is unpaid.
“What she’s doing is simply a mother helping out her daughter,” Cooper said.
Critics say government officials have done little to ensure that Figueredo’s victims get paid — and they were outraged that immigrants are scraping by without the repayment she promised.
“Nothing was done,” said Alejandro Gutierrez, a Buffalo lawyer who said he helped some of Figueredo’s former clients. “Even though the state promised to help them get their money back, it really was not done.”
Figueredo’s lawyer in New York, Michael Bachner, said the attorney general’s office never contacted him after the 2010 settlement to notify him that Figueredo hadn’t paid. He also said he has not heard from Figueredo in “quite a while.”
Braulio Erazo, a former vegetable hawker from Honduras who lives in the Bronx, says his family lost $20,000 to Figueredo. He said he believed she was a lawyer who could secure green cards for his family because she appeared every Sunday morning on Spanish-language TV. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he says now.
He said he later discovered that Figueredo had not filed his immigration papers properly and he ended up paying another $3,000 to a lawyer to salvage his case.
He said he needs the promised restitution from Figueredo more than ever: Since he lost the money, he had open-heart surgery and cannot work, and his son died of a heart problem in 2014.
“I never recovered anything. Imagine,” said Erazo, in a telephone interview. “She’s shameless.”
Although Figueredo is helping out her daughter’s immigration law firm, Cooper, her daughter’s lawyer, said the circumstances are dramatically different. Herrero has been a lawyer in good standing in Massachusetts since 2011, he said, and with her colleagues has helped “hundreds of people.”
“Johanna Herrero is a terrific young lawyer who has built a highly regarded immigration law firm,” Cooper said in a statement. “Whatever wrongs her mother was accused of doing at a time when Johanna had not even completed her education, Johanna herself was never accused of doing anything wrong.”
According to Herrero’s website, the Boston firm has “a strong national client base,” and Herrero actively provides free services for indigent clients. Herrero also recently purchased a luxury condo in Boston for nearly $1 million.
Cooper acknowledged that Herrero had a role in her mother’s New York organization, mostly while she was also studying full time there and in Massachusetts.
Herrero’s Massachusetts law license application says she worked for her mother’s organization until 2008, but federal tax records say she remained there, earning $25,000 to $35,000 a year, until it closed in April 2010.
Cooper said Herrero’s bar application accurately reflects the time period Herrero worked most intensively for her mother’s organization.
On Oct. 21, the American Immigration Lawyers Association in New England removed Herrero from her role as its social-media liaison after the Globe raised questions about Figueredo’s role in Herrero’s law office, said the chapter chair, Susan Church.
“Although Ms. Herrero is not charged or accused of fraud or misconduct, at this time she is no longer acting as the social media liaison out of an abundance of caution until the facts can be determined,” Church said in a statement.