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06/24/2007

Dreams quashed, cash lost, woman vomits


By Mary E. O’Leary,
New Haven Register Topics Editor

NEW HAVEN — When Susan got the bad news, she vomited for days.
Petrified, she couldn’t sleep at night for fear federal agents would drag her off to jail before deporting her.

Susan, a restaurant worker who overstayed a visitor’s visa, is not from Mexico or Central America.

She is part of a group of Irish immigrants working locally who were duped by a con man claiming to be part of an immigration clinic at the Yale Law School. He said he could legally help them become permanent residents.

The gig was up May 1 when New York detectives arrested Ralph Cucciniello, a career scam artist, and charged him with fraud and grand larceny for promising to produce green cards after collecting between $4,500 and $5,000 from each victim.

Immigration agents have not visited Susan and she remains afraid to speak to police, but many others are coming forward to tell their stories of how over a period of 18 months, Cucciniello went from a savior to a pariah in the Irish community.

"The fellow is a career criminal who has been doing this since the 1970s. He has never made an honest living. He is a parasite," said Joseph, another immigrant who was also taken in by the scheme until he read about the arrest and Cucciniello’s history.

The names of the fraud victims have been changed.

Timothy Reardon, an investigator in the New Haven state attorney’s office, estimated about 100 people were victimized and as much as $750,000 was scammed by Cucciniello as he waltzed groups of people through the law school, helping them fill out paperwork and arranging for physicals and fingerprinting.

Reardon has traveled to the Bronx and Boston and talked to dozens of immigrants in the New Haven area. Calls are coming in from people in Chicago, the West Coast, Chicago and Dublin eager to share how they met Cucciniello.

"You are preying on people that you assume because of their status aren’t going to make an issue of it," Reardon said. "I’m interviewing as many victims as I can, encouraging people to come forward."

Olwyn Triggs, a private investigator in New York, said Yale and the federal government should take some responsibility for the mess left behind.

Cucciniello, in the 1990s, was in a federal witness protection program. Having saved the life of an FBI agent, his former attorney, Jay Surgent of New Jersey, said he was considered a valuable asset to the federal government.

"They should have some ownership about this. How the parasite was released back into society to victimize people all over again is beyond me ... having done it his entire life," Triggs said.

Triggs and Reardon said victims’ conversations with them are confidential.

George Kuck, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said immigration officials generally treat these kind of fraud victims as witnesses, rather than prosecute them for being here illegally.

Yale quickly issued a statement after the New York arrest that Cucciniello was never an employee or staff member of the law school, but "on occasion served as a volunteer research assistant" for one of its law professors in connection with his "nonlaw school activities."

"We are cooperating with the government’s investigation into Ralph Cucciniello’s activities," said law school spokeswoman Janet Conroy. She said she did not have any information on any security changes at the school in light of the incident.

Other sources confirmed that the professor is Steven B. Duke, who met Cucciniello in connection with his representation of Martin Taccetta, a mobster who Duke said was wrongly convicted of a 1984 murder in New Jersey. An FBI memo obtained through a freedom of information request in 2001 states Taccetta was not at the murder scene.

Duke, a specialist in criminal law, teaches a course, "Convicting the Innocent," and has represented Taccetta in his appeal of a life sentence. Duke did not answer an e-mail seeking comment. Cucciniello’s attorney, George Goltzer, did not return a phone call.

SMOOTH OPERATOR

Joseph, who has been here for more than a decade and makes a living in the building trades, said Cucciniello’s easy access to the law school is what convinced him that he was on the up and up.

"He’d bring us in with a security card. He’d swipe us through. We’d walk into the library, into various offices. He’d sit back, wasn’t rushed. He definitely wasn’t doing it on the quiet," Joseph said.

Joseph said he lost about $5,400, but others lost much more. Investigators are talking to a victim who said he participated in an investment scheme offered by Cucciniello and may have lost up to six figures.

"This money is hard earned," said Joseph. "It’s not like we are a bunch of investment bankers playing the stock exchange. It takes a long time to make that back."

Aware of the complexities of immigration law and the backlog of cases, Joseph said the immigrants weren’t concerned with the delays in getting green cards.

Joseph said Cucciniello would often mention some personal tragedy to explain why he hadn’t gotten back to them in awhile. Among other things, he claimed his ex-wife had died or his daughter needed a kidney transplant.

According to his arrest record, Cucciniello pleaded guilty to theft in an 1989 indictment where he was charged with stealing more than $370,000 from his ex-mother-in-law, among others.

Other cases in the 1970s and 1980s involved friends, a priest and family members. One report had Cucciniello sentenced to 30 years in 1995, but it was unclear what time he has served in prison.

Ann and her boyfriend, John, who both were stopped from getting back into the United States in January after a visit to Ireland at Christmas, lost $34,000 between the money they invested with Cucciniello, back taxes he failed to pay on their behalf and the upfront costs for the green card.

Here for seven years, they had hoped to buy a home in Greater New Haven and start their own business.

Two years ago, just before they met Cucciniello, they were thinking of moving back to Ireland, but he gave them hope that they could eventually get citizenship here.

"When I found out the depth of it (the scam,) I’m like, I’d do anything to get this man," Ann said in phone call from Ireland.

Ann said Cucciniello continued to string them along for four months from January to Easter, when they were first back in Ireland, sending two checks from their investments that bounced and promising they somehow could get back into the U.S.

"He took those four months, he took all our savings. I thought I was so smart, I thought I was an intelligent girl. He took that from me," Ann said.

Both now are working in their native country. Given what they know now about Cucciniello, Ann, 30, said they are in a much better place than their friends back in New Haven. Still "it’s not America," she said of her new life, although it’s a relief not to fear the authorities.

PLENTY OF VICTIMS

Kuck, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, knows all about the amnesty scams targeted at immigrants.

"It happens in every single (ethnic) community," Kuck said. "It doesn’t matter. The system is so convoluted, that fraudsters can easily prey on the fears, the desires, the hopes of people and literally take advantage of them to the tune of millions of dollars."

He said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has to get a systematic way of dealing with this issue, particularly if Congress adopts immigration reforms and offers a way to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Kuck said the penalties in these kinds of cases are too light. "Frankly, if it was punished more strictly, it might deter people from getting engaged in it," he said. The number of Irish immigrants has dropped off since that country turned its economy around in the last decade and now requires emigrants of its own to fill some jobs.

Still, Kuck said "you get the adventurous, you get the people that are curious, you get the people who want a change in their life," continuing to come here.

Kelly Fincham, a Washington lobbyist for Irish immigrants, said she greets reports of the "Celtic Tiger," the name given to Ireland’s booming economy, "with a wry smile."

She said she is inundated with calls from people who want to emigrate to America and who are closely following the on-again, off-again reform efforts in the Senate. "They are not coming here because they can’t come legally and they hear so many horror stories. You will find that people in Ireland are going to Australia because Australia has a system," Fincham said.

Surgent, Cucciniello’s former attorney, said one of the requirements of the federal witness protection program is a promise by a participant not to engage in further criminal activity, but the U.S. never guarantees that such violations won’t happen.

As for Yale, Surgent said it will have to unravel Professor Duke’s outside activities and the introduction of Cucciniello to the Yale campus.

"This guy is a real character," Surgent said, but what the case shows is that "Yale University or any school can be snookered."

"This guy (Cucciniello) is really the penultimate," said Surgent. "It’s a sad situation."

Joseph issued a warning to whomever comes in contact with Cucciniello in the future. "If he wants to buy as much as a cup of coffee off you, report him to Reardon and Triggs. He’s a leech on society."