Lawyer guilty of document scam must refund ill-gotten gains

Local attorney Muhammad Fokra is thought to have defrauded hundreds of migrant workers fearful of deportation from Israel.

Migrant Workers 311 (photo credit: Illustrative photo/ Mya Guarnieri)
Migrant Workers 311
(photo credit: Illustrative photo/ Mya Guarnieri)
Muhammad Fokra, a local attorney accused of cheating scores of migrant workers and Palestinians out of thousands of dollars, has been ordered by a Tel Aviv court to refund his clients. The civil suit against Fokra was filed by attorney David Ben-Haim, who represented 25 migrant laborers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania and Turkey. They are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of other migrant workers are believed to have fallen victim to the scam.
Almost all tell a similar story. Most had either lost or overstayed their work visas.
And Fokra, who keeps an office in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station – a popular meeting place for foreign workers – promised to protect them from deportation.
After they’d paid between $3,000 and $4,000, Fokra provided his clients, most of whom don’t read or write Hebrew, with court documents. According to his clients, Fokra claimed the paperwork meant they could stay in Israel and continue to work for up to five years.
Some say Fokra referred to it as a “protection visa” – a category that does not exist.
In reality, the papers said only that Fokra had filed suit against the Ministry of Interior and other government agencies on his clients’ behalf. In most instances, judges dismissed the cases because Fokra had skipped the crucial first step of applying for residency for his clients. Fokra himself closed some of the cases.
In December of 2007, Jesus Ocampo, an undocumented worker who was not part of Ben-Haim’s suit, paid Fokra $3,000 for papers he believed would protect him from deportation.
“Fokra told me: ‘If [immigration police] stop you, you show them that [document] and they can’t touch you,” Ocampo recalled. Like Fokra’s other clients, Ocampo reports that he paid cash and did not receive receipts.
Several weeks later, an acquaintance, who was also a client of Fokra’s and carried papers similar to Ocampo’s, was deported. Frightened, Ocampo tried to get in touch with his attorney. His calls went unanswered and unreturned.
Peter Palalon is a domestic helper included in Ben-Haim’s suit against Fokra.
Palalon worked legally as a caregiver until his employer died several years ago.
“After that, I am hiding,” Palalon says, referring to the state policy that strips a migrant laborer of his visa upon his employer’s death.
“That’s why I went to Fokra,” Palalon said. “I thought that I will be secure.”
While some workers drained their savings or borrowed from friends to pay Fokra, Palalon took out high-interest loans from a local lender.
“I paid a lot of money,” Palalon said, explaining that he trusted Fokra because he was an attorney. “I thought he was a good man.”
But several weeks later, Palalon discovered that the documents Fokra had given him were worthless.
To bolster his civil case against Fokra, Ben-Haim compared Fokra’s handling of two very different clients – one with a valid work visa, the other an undocumented laborer residing in Israel illegally.
“For both, Fokra filed almost the exact same case – proof that he didn’t care about the specific legal circumstances of the [client],” Ben-Haim said. He explained that Fokra filed only to “get the legal fees.”
In her ruling against Fokra, Justice Oshri Frost-Frenkel wrote: “The defendant presented petitions in the names of clients who didn’t need petitions; all he had to do was refer them to the Ministry of the Interior for a residency permit… The defendant presented petitions without thinking, without checking the legal status of the client first. He worked without fulfilling the prerequirements of these petitions, and all that to collect the fees from his clients.”
According to Frost-Frenkel, it all added up to a “clear method of collecting fees for [doing] nothing, without any need, and exploiting distressed foreign workers, [people] who don’t understand the language and are afraid of being deported from [Israel].”
She continued: “The defendant took advantage of their blind faith in him as a lawyer in a state that is foreign to them, promising them that those documents would without a doubt [help them] stay in the country…” Frost-Frenkel has ordered Fokra to return the fees he collected from his clients.
He must also pay interest on the sums.
Reflecting on the verdict, Ben-Haim commented, “I honestly believe that justice has been served here.”
Both Palalon and Ocampo were pleased to hear the results.
“I am happy, but I don’t know when I’ll get the money,” Palalon said, adding that recovering the fees he paid to Fokra was important to him.
In a telephone interview from the Philippines, Ocampo, who chose to return home over a year ago, said: “This is justice for me because he took a lot of money not only from me, but from all [his clients].”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Fokra insisted that he represented his clients to the best of his ability. “I went to court for them,” he said.
“I’m going to appeal [the decision],” he added. “They cannot prove this case.”