SAN FRANCISCO (BCN)—The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office has filed suit against a Bernal Heights firm alleged to have misled clients into thinking they had

hired an immigration attorney and collecting fees for work they had not performed, city officials said today.

The lawsuit filed Aug. 15 against Lacayo Associates and its principals, Leonard and Ada Lacayo, alleges that the tax preparation and immigration consulting firm defrauded clients by falsely presenting Leonard Lacayo, a notary public, as an attorney and immigration consultant.

Ada Lacayo, Leonard’s mother, is a licensed immigration consultant but appears to do only tax preparation work for the firm, leaving the immigration work to her son, the complaint alleges.

“Defendants Lacayo & Associates… have defrauded immigrants and their families in the Bay Area for approximately twenty years,” the complaint states.

“Not only did they defraud victims by charging high fees for services they cannot lawfully provide, but they jeopardized their clients’ access to immigration benefits they are eligible for,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement today. “Through this lawsuit I hope to bring the Lacayos to justice for their exploitation of immigrants in San Francisco and to prevent any other immigrants from becoming victims of their fraudulent operation.”

The city attorney’s office prepared the complaint with the help of nonprofit immigration service providers who hear firsthand the stories of clients who have lost money to unscrupulous providers.

“Over the years we have had many people who have left that office in literal tears or just feeling very defrauded,” said Ana Herrera, managing immigration attorney for Dolores Street Community Services.

Immigrants often need legal advice and consultants because the federal immigration system is complicated and does not provide defense attorneys, Ana Herrera said. However the consequences for those who get bad legal advice can be grave, including deportation.

“These people like Lacayo and other unscrupulous individuals are taking advantage of people who are desperate because of an unjust immigration system,” Ana Herrera said. “We try to fill that gap here in San Francisco but the need is way too high for us.”

Leonard Lacayo today described the lawsuit as “political” and alleged that he was being targeted because he was a Republican and Trump supporter. He said he was a founder of the California Association of Immigration Consultants and had been working in the field since before the industry was regulated.

“Fortunately my reputation is bulletproof,” he said.

Lacayo said that he sometimes provides referrals to other services, including attorneys, but does not claim to be one himself.

“I’m an immigration activist and I am for immigration reform but I am not a lawyer,” he said. “I would be embarrassed to say I was.”

The city is seeking civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation and to recover funds lost by victims of the alleged fraudulent practices.

The city is also seeking a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants to immediately comply with the Immigration Consultant Act, which spells out legal requirements for those advertising their services as immigration consultants. The injunction would also require the firm to remove any misleading statements about legal services from its advertising and

notify clients from the past four years that Lacayo is not a licensed attorney.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge will hold a hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction on Oct. 11