Former Trenton municipal judge faces charges of extortion
By Isaac Avilucea, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, April 13, 2015
TRENTON Former city municipal Judge Renee Lamarre-Sumners, ousted from the bench in 2010 amid disclosures of financial issues, is accused of extorting more than $17,000 over a four-year span from clients who sought her legal help on immigration matters, according to a criminal complaint.
Lamarre-Sumners, once a prominent city attorney who was appointed to the bench in 2010 by now-convicted former Mayor Tony Mack, was arrested last month on fraud-related charges, unbeknownst to some of her alleged victims who fear being deported. She retained high-profile attorney Jerome Ballarotto, has already made a first appearance in federal court in Trenton and is negotiating with prosecutors to resolve her case quietly without going to trial, court records show. A resolution could be in place as early as this month, The Trentonian has learned.
The case, which is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorney Mark McCarren, has not been indicted by a grand jury. Lamarre-Sumners faces 20 years in federal prison if a grand jury were to indict her on of a single count of felony extortion and she were convicted. Ballarotto said his client, who has been inundated with medical bills as a result of an ongoing battle with cancer, has not yet plead in court and accusations in a criminal complaint are still unproven. “It’s a very sad story,” he said. “This is a woman who dedicated her life to public service for many years and has done a lot for the community. It’s just a very sad situation, but we’re dealing with it in due course.”
Interviews with some of the victims, court documents and letters reveal Lamarre-Sumners allegedly posed as an official from the Department of Labor, demanding payments from clients and threatening further financial sanctions and deportation if her demands were unmet.Under the guise of case worker E. Dormastat, Lamarre-Sumners allegedly wrote in letters obtained by The Trentonian the penalties were due to employment of undocumented workers or because those undocumented workers were residing in the country illegally. Victims didn’t recognize signs they were being duped, unwilling to believe Lamarre-Sumners, personable, frail and cancer-stricken, would jeopardize their stays in the United States.
“I felt sorry for her,” said Kenneth Forgash, owner of 99 Cent Plus in East Windsor. He paid the Trenton attorney $6,750, money that was supposed to go toward helping his employee, Martha Franco Merino, obtain legal status. “You get chills in the back of your neck. Your hair stands up. This person who seems like an angel was putting one over on us.”
Despite records showing she is in financial ruin, Lamarre-Sumners is free on $100,000 unsecured bail and has hired Ballarotto, whose retainer is as much as $50,000, sources have said, leaving some victims wondering where she got money to mount her defense. Attorneys routinely reach agreements with clients to charge less than their normal rates. Ballarotto declined to say how Lamarre-Sumners afforded his services. She has surrendered her passport to the court and is restricted to travel within the state and Pennsylvania, unless approved by federal probation officials. In court papers filed earlier this month, prosecutors said they expect Lamarre-Sumners to plead guilty and have asked for a monthlong continuance of the case, court records show.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lois H. Goodman granted the extension based on federal prosecutors’ “desire [for]additional time to undertake any plea negotiations and to enter a guilty plea, which would render any grand jury proceedings and any subsequent trial of this matter unnecessary.” State ethics officials have lodged a complaint against Lamarre-Sumners as a result of the fraud allegations, which appear to stem from ongoing financial issues that stretch back several years but didn’t become public until 2010, when she was appointed to the bench.
She was pressured to resign after several newspaper stories revealed she wrote rubber checks for renewal fees of her law license, had IRS liens placed on her home and had a warrant out for her arrest. Last August, Lamarre-Sumners, who was admitted to the state bar in 1994, was placed on a list of attorneys ineligible to practice law in New Jersey after she failed to pay license renewal fees. A portion of those fees go to the New Jersey Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, which reimburses clients like the ones Lamarre-Sumners is accused of stealing from.
‘I thought she was my friend’
As Lamarre-Sumners’ and her husband’s financial situation grew increasingly dire, she looked for ways to keep creditors at bay. This included allegedly preying on Forgash, Merino and two other undocumented workers who went to her for help on immigration issues. According to a criminal complaint filed by special agent Zachary Meisenheimer in U.S. District Court in Trenton, Lamarre-Sumners’ ruse began in August 2011 and continued through June 2013. During this time, she convinced clients to hand over several checks, totaling $17,050. Forgash paid an additional $3,000 not reflected in the criminal complaint. State grievance officials say the fee was excessive for filing a “routine” immigration application for Merino which went nowhere.
Some checks were written out to the Department of Labor; others were made out to the attorney, according to the criminal complaint and interviews.
The clients are not named in the complaint but are described as a business owner, employee, fast-food worker in Mercer County and a Guatemalan man employed in Ocean County.
The Trentonian spoke to Forgash, an East Windsor business owner who agreed to wear a wire in order to help federal authorities build their case against Lamarre-Sumners; and his employee, Merino, a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. two decades ago. She has worked at the 99 Cent Plus store for about eight years, supporting her two daughters and son, ages 11, 15 and 18. Merino couldn’t contain her excitement when her boss offered to front $6,750 to help her obtain citizenship while she paid off the loan in installments. Forgash began searching for an attorney. A friend recommended Lamarre-Sumners.
When Forgash and Merino met the Trenton attorney, they felt at ease. Lamarre-Sumners was sharp and candid — the perfect blend of personal and professional. She shared details about her life, including an ongoing battle with lymphoma.The lawyerly mother would ask Forgash about his family and invite him out for sushi. He recalled wishing Lamarre-Sumners a “Happy Mother’s Day.”“She was a friend of mine, I thought,” he said. Merino said through a translator she was initially impressed by the attorney.
“When I first met her, she had a good vibe,” she said. “She made me comfortable. I’m very disappointed things aren’t working out that way. I work very hard; I sacrificed a lot for that [money], saving, not buying food or things the kids needed.” Merino patiently waited more than four years as Lamarre-Sumners repeatedly filed error-filled applications, documents show. Lamarre-Sumners told Merino her status was approved, she said. In truth, Merino’s last application, submitted in May 2013, was rejected and Lamarre-Sumners never corrected it or resubmitted it. State ethics officials in their complaint criticized Lamarre-Sumners’ inability to complete “routine application documents.” Merino is fearful she will be deported before she can hire another attorney. “I’m planning to continue the struggle,” she said. “I’m going to move forward, save some money up and I want to hire another attorney.”
The Guatemalan man, referred to as “Victim 3” in the complaint, went to Lamarre-Sumners for help in 2012. He received the first of several letters, purportedly from labor officials, in March 2013 demanding $3,000.The letter stated: “To further avoid the need to return to his native country of Guatemala several penalties will be imposed until such time that the employee obtains a valid work permit authorization from the Department of Homeland Security.” Lamarre-Sumners followed up in a text message that she had gotten the penalty reduced from $5,000. A month later, she claimed to have gotten another letter requesting $2,300 more. “Can you have the money to me by today?” Lamarre-Sumners wrote in a text, according to the complaint.
‘Make her talk’
Forgash became suspicious of Lamarre-Sumners in 2012, when 15 minutes after he cut her a $2,500 check for labor penalties, he got a call from someone at his bank. An attorney had shown up trying to cash a check, and they were ensuring he issued it.“I felt it would be irregular for an attorney to be cashing checks,” Forgash said.When he asked to see receipts from the Department of Labor, Lamarre-Sumners became incommunicado. Forgash contacted numerous state agencies, including the Department of Labor. He found no trace of E. Dormastat, the name of the purported case worker.That’s when he called Rep. Chris Smith with his concerns. The congressman’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, contacted labor officials, who, in turn, launched an investigation.
Forgash was asked by investigators to set up a meeting at his store with Lamarre-Sumners. Authorities set up a camera inside the store, hidden inside a Scotch tape dispenser, and strapped Forgash with a wire. They instructed him to “make her talk” and let her “dig her own hole” while they surreptitiously listened to the conversation from an unmarked vehicle in the parking lot of the East Windsor shopping plaza. Forgash remained behind the checkout counter, fearful Lamarre-Sumners would hug him and discover the wire.“I felt like I was doing something wrong to her,” he said. Then he realized she was the “backstabber – she’d look you in the eye, smile, hug you and act like nothing was wrong.”
According to court records, something was seriously wrong. Lamarre-Sumners and her husband, Jeffrey, were broke. They filed for bankruptcy in June 2012, claiming more than $424,000 in debt and only $187,112 in assets, court records show. More than a third of the debt was from student loans. The couple was unable to keep up with tuition payments for their son, Austin, who was attending Chapin School, a private school in Princeton, after Jeffrey Sumners underwent a hip replacement and was on disability for several months.In February 2010, he was laid off from his job as project manager at a New York-based construction company, records show.
Jeffrey Sumners wrote to creditors, asking for time as the couple tried to avoid having their Abernethy Drive home in Trenton foreclosed. The 2,732-square foot residence, recently valued at $136,600, is being auctioned off, records show.
Ballarotto is portrayed by clients and in colorful newspapers excerpts plastered on his website as the cowboy boot-wearing “maestro of the courtroom.” He is known for his defense of Joseph “JoJo” Giorgianni, co-conspirator turned cooperating witness who admitted accepting bribes on behalf of former Trenton Mayor Tony Mack.
Ballarotto’s peers describe him as a zealous advocate whose legal knowledge, combined with connections he made as a Secret Service special agent and criminal chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Trenton, make him a “first-rate federal deal-maker.”
The so-called “criminal attorney for the stars,” who once remarked Giorgianni was a part of “Trenton lore” for taking down a crooked politician, is usually a fire-breathing dragon of hyperbole and braggadocio.
For Lamarre-Sumners, the task appears trickier, evidenced by Ballarotto’s subdued tone. For all the evidence the government had against Giorgianni, he had an enormous bargaining chip named Tony Mack. Lamarre-Sumners, indigent and in poor health, is seemingly penniless.
“I don’t know what to say at this point,” Ballarotto said. “This is obviously very upsetting for Renee. She’s enduring all of this trying to defend herself of these charges and maintain her health.”