Attorney Muhammad Fokara is accused of defrauding his foreign worker clients. 19 are now seeking justice.
By MYA GUARNIERI
Pinto Baptist, an Indian worker currently living in Tel Aviv, was desperate for help in December of 2008. In India, he'd borrowed $9,000 from friends and family to pay the agency fees it cost to come to Israel to work. But when he arrived here, in July of 2007, Baptist found that no employment awaited him - he had been victimized by the flying visa scam.
Despite the fact that the job he'd come to Israel for didn't exist, Baptist decided to remain here. He thought that finding work in Israel, where wages are higher than those in India, was the best way to pay back his deep debt, which was rapidly accumulating interest. He was also responsible for his wife and child in India - if he didn't find a source of income, he explained, his family might become homeless.
"If I go back to my house with empty hands, what answer can I give my child and wife?" Baptist says.
He needed nothing short of a miracle - and when Baptist, a Christian, met attorney Muhammad Fokara just before Christmas in 2008, he thought he'd found one.
According to Baptist, Fokara said he could recover the $9,000 Baptist had lost. Baptist alleges that Fokara promised him he would be able to stay in Israel for five years.
"He also promised justice," Baptist adds.
The cost for Fokara's services? NIS 13,475 - roughly $4,000.
It took Baptist a few days to collect the money, which he borrowed from various Indian friends in Israel. Baptist claims that he then made two payments to Fokara - NIS 4,000 on December 24, 2008 and NIS 9,475 on December 27, 2008. Though he didn't receive receipts for either payment, Fokara did give him a piece of paper on December 28.
"'Congratulations,' he told me," Baptist says. "'This means you can stay in Israel for five more years.'" Baptist alleges that Fokara told him the document would protect him from arrest and deportation.
Baptist, who doesn't speak, read or write Hebrew, wasn't sure what the words on the sheet said, but clearly the paper was government related - it bore an official stamp with the state's symbol, a menora. And Baptist trusted the advice of his attorney.
A few weeks later, Baptist received a phone call from the same friend who had told him about Fokara. The friend, who had been walking around with papers similar to those Baptist had received from Fokara, had been arrested by Immigration Police. He asked Baptist if he had already given Fokara all his money.
"I said yes," Baptist recalls, "and my friend said, 'Go. Get it back.'"
Confused and distressed, Baptist called Fokara who, according to Baptist, assured him he was safe. But Baptist's suspicions lingered.
In late January 2009, an Israeli friend of Baptist's inquired with the court as to the status of his case. Baptist was shocked by the results - the case had been closed weeks before, with Fokara's consent. Baptist claims that Fokara never notified him of this outcome.
JESUS OCAMPO, a Filipino worker, came to Israel in 1994. He lost his legal status in 2006, but he stayed in the country illegally so that he could continue to earn money. It was a difficult decision for Ocampo - a life in Israel that was little more than working and hiding versus a free life in the Philippines, where it is nearly impossible to eke out an existence.
But a sliver of hope came in December of 2007. Ocampo heard about a lawyer, Muhammad Fokara, who could protect him from deportation. There would be a small party, held in the south Tel Aviv apartment of a Filipina named Mika, where Ocampo and other illegal workers could meet him and learn more about the so-called "protection visa."
So Ocampo attended the gathering. "Fokara arrived two hours late, like a king," Ocampo recalls with a raise of his eyebrows. "He gave a speech and used a Filipina there as proof. It was like a promo," Ocampo claims.
According to Ocampo, Fokara then spoke with potential clients, including Ocampo. Fokara listened earnestly, asking questions and filling out a form as they talked. Fokara reportedly told Ocampo that he could provide him with a document that would protect him from deportation. "Fokara told me, 'If someone [immigration police] stops you, you show them that [document] and they can't touch you," Ocampo says.
It was there, in an apartment on Rehov Har Tzion, that Ocampo paid his first fee to Fokara: $500, in cash.
On December 14, Ocampo visited Fokara's office in the Central Bus Station where he paid the remainder: $2,500, again, in cash.
Ocampo says Fokara didn't give him a receipt. But Fokara did give Ocampo, who - like Baptist - can't speak or read Hebrew, a document from the Israeli court system. Ocampo claims that Fokara told him he could "'renew the paper on a yearly basis.'" With a sad smile, Ocampo recalls the moment he received that white sheet of paper - printed with black Hebrew words and marked with a blue stamp. "I felt like I was free," he says.
A few weeks later Ocampo heard about a Filipino, also a client of Fokara's, who had been caught by the Immigration Police and subsequently deported.
"I hid," Ocampo says. "And I called Fokara."
Ocampo claims that the calls he made to his attorney went unreturned.
Eventually an Israeli friend, a lawyer, checked on the status of Ocampo's case. It had been closed, with Fokara's consent. But according to Ocampo, his case had been closed without his knowledge - Fokara had never notified him.
SHAI OCKSENBERG and Romm Lawkowicz of the Migrant Workers' Hotline flip through a thick file comprising dozens of complaints about Muhammad Fokara, including those lodged by Baptist and Ocampo. Ocksenberg explains that she has been dealing with the issue of Fokara since May of 2008, but the first complaints came even earlier, from people in Ramle and Ma'asiyahu prisons who thought the papers Fokara had given them were providing them with protection.
"The typical story we have seen is a caregiver who was here for five years or more and they want to stay," Ocksenberg says. "So they go to Fokara and pay thousands of dollars for him to arrange for them to stay, which everyone knows is impossible... but Fokara says 'pay me' and he promises things he cannot deliver."
Ocksenberg says the Migrant Workers' Hotline has seen other former clients of Fokara's, including foreign workers who have lost their legal status due to loss of employment. "The worker finds himself here in Israel, illegal, with no job prospects and deep in debt... they are a very vulnerable population."
And they go to an attorney for help.
"So he files the case," Lawkowicz says, "but the case is empty." Lawkowicz sifts through a pile of papers - judges' decisions regarding cases Fokara has filed obtained from the online verdict pool. The dismissals reveal that judge after judge has concluded the same thing - Fokara has no case.
In one dismissal, the judge says that Fokara has come before her, again, with a general and undetailed complaint that does not meet minimal requirements. In another, the judge cites the fact that Fokara filed the petition without taking the initial step of requesting residency on behalf of his clients at the appropriate government agencies. In a third, the judge mentions that despite the fact that the respondents had requested additional information, Fokara had not provided it.
THOUGH COOPERATIVE and polite throughout a brief phone interview, anything more than general answers from Fokara himself were hard to come by. When told by Metro that many of his former clients felt he had not represented them to the best of his ability, Fokara responded, "I don't understand what you mean - everyone who comes to me, I go to court. Everybody who comes to my office, one day after I file, they get the paper... I tell all the clients the judge is deciding."
Fokara interrupted Metro's attempts to discuss specific rulings, such as those obtained from the online verdict pool: "Senora, you are a lawyer?" he asked.
He explained that sometimes the clients are the ones creating trouble for themselves. "Look, sometimes they go against themselves... It's as if they have the right to be here," he said. "They've made the mistakes, and for nothing they're claiming."
In regard to the allegations some of his former clients have made that he closed cases without their knowledge, he said those claims are simply not true. "I have never closed a case without a client knowing. I gave them the decisions," he said. "It's not true," he protested.
What about the numerous complaints about him that have been filed to the Migrant Workers' Hotline, Kav LaOved (Line to the Workers), the Immigration Police, and the Israel Bar Association?
"It's nothing," Fokara said.
Meanwhile, further attempts to contact Fokara, in an attempt to better understand his point of view, went unanswered as of the time this article went to print.
The Immigration Police, however, thought allegations of wrongdoing such as Baptist's and Ocampo's were more than "nothing" and made Fokara the subject of a recent investigation. Superintendent David Peretz and his colleague Eli Tsemach estimate that Immigration Police have received more than 20 complaints about him, though they don't have any current cases against the attorney.
Their investigation focused not on success rates, but on effort. "If you want to show fraud, you should show that he doesn't do anything [for his clients]," Tsemach says. "But he does [do something]. He goes and files the cases."
Despite the fact that "Fokara did make an effort for the case[s]â€¦ as a lawyer he knows the rules in Israel, and he knows that nothing will come of these cases," Tsemach alleges. "But the people that come here [the foreign workers] are like innocent children, they don't know whether the case will be successful or not."
The Immigration Police passed their findings along to the Justice Ministry, which as of now has declined to press criminal charges. According to Justice Ministry spokesman Tal Vider, "the file reached the prosecutor and was returned to the police for the investigation to be completed."
FOKARA'S BEHAVIOR as an attorney remains under review, however. Naila Okal, Ethics and Complaints Coordinator of the Northern District of the Israel Bar - where Fokara is licensed and where the complaints against him have been lodged - explains that after a complaint is received, the Ethics Committee recommends whether or not "the district association [of the Israel Bar] will press charges against the lawyer before the disciplinary court." In the case of Muhammad Fokara, that answer was yes - Fokara is currently a defendant facing the Israel Bar Association as a plaintiff.
Faruq Omari, General Manager of the Northern District of the Israel Bar, remarks, "I can't say so much about what's going on before the judges make their decision. [Fokara's] case is in court now. I don't know what the judges will decide. I don't want to [conduct] an interview before the decision about his future."
"IT'S NOT a crime," Anat Kidron, attorney for Kav LaOved, says. "But the lawyer should tell you that you have no case and he should tell you that it is likely to be dismissed and that it won't take long."
Though the Immigration Police looked at effort rather than success, it's the high failure rate of the cases Fokara is filing on behalf of foreign workers that Kidron finds troubling, "This could happen a few times, maybe, but not dozens of times," she says.
Indeed, Kav LaOved didn't receive just a handful of complaints - they received a steady stream, "many of them from workers who have already been here the maximum period of time they are allowed to be," Kidron explains.
According to Kidron, "In some cases, the judges refused to even give the temporary paper [that protects from deportation while a case is in court]. In these cases, he [Fokara] gave them [his client] the paper he was filing with the court and he let them believe and assume that they [the papers] were something they're not," she alleges. "We thought it was serious fraud and we sent these people to the immigration police."
Fokara isn't the only lawyer about whom Kav LaOved has received complaints. But Kidron feels his actions were "the most obvious. The negligence was so gross, it makes it clear that it's more than negligence."
Kav LaOved opened approximately 20 cases about Fokara, according to Kidron. "But at some point we directed victims to the [Israel] Bar [Association] or to the lawyer who was making a civil lawsuit.
That attorney is David Ben-Chaim. He is suing Fokara in civil court on behalf of 19 plaintiffs. But he is not claiming negligence. Ben-Chaim tells Metro that he is accusing Fokara of fraud and acts of deceit. He is asking for NIS 450,000 in recompense - approximately half to recover the money his clients paid Fokara and the remainder as compensation for emotional distress.
According to Ben-Chaim, "Each [of my clients] paid Fokara between 2,500 and 3,500 dollars. Fokara promised each of them that they could stay in Israel from 33 to 48 months. Most of them received the same piece of paper from Fokara - [the papers were] requests he filed in court or a paper that says [that] the court received his complaint.
"The problem is that all of these cases were filed against the Interior Ministry, without an initial complaint to the Interior Ministry," Ben-Chaim continues. "What Fokara needed to do was fight the Interior Ministry's decision. Because he ignored the protocol, this makes it inevitable that the case will be thrown out... and even if he didn't know that in the first case, he should have known it after the third, or fourth, or tenth."
As far as opening cases that are certain to fail, Ben-Chaim says, "An attorney can file an empty case, but he must let [the client] know that the chances are nil and [the attorney] can't make guarantees. Filing a case for someone who has been here for 10 years is nil, there is no chance of winning."
"I WENT home with nothing," Rosemarie Cote, a former client of Fokara's, says on the phone.
From her home in the Philippines, she recounts her experience with Fokara. She had been working in Israel without a visa for eight years - sending her money back to the Philippines to support her seven children - when she met Fokara. According to Cote, Fokara promised her a new employer and a new visa.
"He took my money - all my savings - and he didn't do anything," she says.
That is, besides giving her a piece of paper.
"He told me that it would protect me for 33 months, he told me I was safe," Cote says.
But Cote was picked up two months later by Immigration Police. She was deported just days after Christmas.
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