State fines Yakima business $4,500

YAKIMA -- The owner of a Yakima immigration assistance business has agreed to pay $4,500 in civil penalties and costs after being sued by the state Attorney General's Office for fraud.

As part of the settlement, Manuel Rodriguez also signed off on a host of conditions that substantially restricts him and the staff of Centros de Servicios Latinos from providing legal advice for immigration services, or even immigration services.

It is at least the fourth case in the past 13 months in which the Attorney General's Office has brought legal action against Yakima Valley businesses that the agency says are involved in the unauthorized practice of immigration law or offering legal advice about immigration, but are not attorneys or otherwise properly accredited.

The latest lawsuit and the settlement, called a consent decree, were filed earlier this month in Yakima County Superior Court.

Centros de Servicios Latinos, which operated in the 199 block of East Walnut Street in downtown Yakima, was accused of providing legal advice, though Rodriguez is neither a lawyer nor registered with the state Secretary of State's Office as an immigration assistant.

Such advice or services constituted an unfair or deceptive business practice and violated the state Consumer Protection Act and the Immigration Assistance Practices Act.

Rodriguez's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lawsuit also accused Rodriguez of several contract-law violations, including failure to put contracts in writing, inform clients of the right to cancel contracts within 72 hours, and provide contracts in English and Spanish.

To settle the case, Rodriguez agreed to pay $3,000 in attorney fees and costs and the first $1,500 of a $10,000 civil penalty, with the balance suspended as a hedge against further violations.

The settlement also included a number of conditions that severely restrict immigration services provided by Rodriguez and his staff.

According to the lawsuit, Centros de Servicios Latinos (Latino Services Centers) provides other non-immigration services such as income tax preparation, sale of phone cards and money transfers.

The restrictions include:

-- No advice on requirements for visas, work permits, residency, citizenship or other immigration benefits.

-- No advice or assistance on the selection of forms and paperwork.

-- No coaching on answers to questions posed on immigration-related forms.

-- No fees, advertising or acceptance of payment for translating immigration forms.

-- No help in obtaining supporting documents such as birth and marriage certificates, criminal histories or identification papers from other countries.

-- No use of the term "notario publico" or "notario" in signs, business cards or advertising.

-- No mortgage lending or brokering services without first being licensed by the Department of Financial Services.

-- No refusing to return documents, whether a client owes money or not.

-- Affirmative language on contracts informing clients of their 72-hour right to cancel contracts.

-- No assistance with the falsification of documents or misrepresentations of a person's identity.

The settlement also requires the installation of signs in every room of the business, stating:

"We are not attorneys. We may not tell you whether you qualify for a work permit, residency, citizenship or other immigration status.

"We may not provide you legal advice on an immigration matter.

"If you have any questions, consult a licensed attorney who know immigration laws."