Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Corruption: Former New Jersey Attorney Admits Generating More Than $1 Million Profit from Phony Lawsuits

U.S. Attorney’s Office 
District of New Jersey

CAMDEN, NJ—A former attorney in the Haddonfield, New Jersey office of a firm specializing in toxic tort litigation today admitted that he falsified defendants’ names in more than 100 asbestos suits filed in New York State courts in order to increase business and his standing in the firm, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

Arobert C. Tonogbanua, 44, of Sicklerville, New Jersey, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman in Camden federal court to an information charging him with one count of wire fraud. During the proceeding, Tonogbanua admitted that he fraudulently inserted the names of his former law firm’s clients into legitimately filed asbestos suits and charged the clients more than $1 million in attorney’s fees, costs, and settlements to defend them.

According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:

From 2008 through April 9, 2012, Tonogbanua worked at the Haddonfield office of a firm specializing in toxic tort litigation, workers’ compensation, and immigration law, during which time he engaged in the wire fraud scheme.

Specifically, Tonogbanua admitted, he obtained copies of legitimately filed asbestos complaints and fraudulently altered them by deleting a named defendant and inserting the name(s) of one or more of his firm’s clients. Tonogbanua admitted that, unbeknownst to anyone else at the firm, he forwarded those fraudulently altered complaints by e-mail, fax, and otherwise to the firm’s clients, their representatives, and insurance companies.

After notifying the firm’s clients of the suits, Tonogbanua—and others at the firm who were not involved in the scheme—undertook the representation of the clients by attending depositions, answering discovery, and even settling claims. It is estimated that Tonogbanua inserted his firm’s clients’ names into more than 100 lawsuits, resulting in the generation of more than $1 million in fraudulent fees, costs, and settlements. Tonogbanua personally benefitted from the scheme through bonuses and increased compensation.

Tonogbanua faces a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000,or twice the gross gain or loss from the scheme—whichever is greater. Sentencing is currently scheduled for June 17, 2014.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Tonogbanua has agreed to make full restitution to his former law firm for all the losses resulting from his fraudulent scheme. The firm has already repaid its clients.

U.S. Attorney Fishman credited special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Edward J. Hanko in Philadelphia, with the investigation leading to Tonogbanua’s guilty plea.

The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Carrig of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Camden.