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Woman charged in theft of immigration money

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

A legal assistant, who helped non-citizens with immigration and naturalization issues, abused the trust of Hispanics to pocket thousands in filing fees on federal documents, Decatur police said Monday.

Debbie Rogers, 34, a former interpreter for the Morgan County probate office, committed the thefts while working for Decatur law firm Allen Stoner PC between 2005 and 2007, police said.

Decatur police Detective Herb Lundy said the extent of the theft remains under investigation.

With a warrant out for her arrest on a charge of first-degree theft, Rogers turned herself in Thursday.

Her former boss, Allen Stoner, said suspicions aroused in April grew as an audit following her sudden departure in May, uncovered about $38,000 in diverted funds.

Stoner said Spanish-speaking clients dealt with Rogers and often presented her with cash or money orders that were supposed to go into a trust fund to cover filing fees for immigration documents.

Stoner, the only Decatur lawyer advertised in the phone book as specializing in immigration and naturalization, said Rogers appeared to provide a valuable link to his Hispanic clientele.

"She was hired both for her fluency in Spanish and her deep compassion for the Hispanic community," Stoner said. "So, it's shocking that she was defrauding the same people that she purportedly cared so much for. She said she enjoyed helping the Hispanic community because they were so vulnerable to fraud and deceit."

Rogers grew up in Mexico, where her parents worked as Christian missionaries. She told The Daily in a 2006 interview that her understanding of Mexican culture was key to winning over Hispanic clients, who are often slow to trust immigration attorneys.

"Because of the language barrier, I placed a lot of trust in her," Stoner said. "I'm not capable of conversational Spanish. So, we relied on her, and I was very dismayed when we started to find out that she had been deceiving not only us but these clients as well."

Shortly after quitting, Rogers sent an e-mail in which she said she felt bad about what she had done, Stoner said.

"But when we talked to some of our Hispanic clients, she had led them to believe that nothing was wrong," Stoner said. "Over the last month, she has continued to mislead people who have confronted her, and she continues to deny and mislead."

The firm contacted everyone who dealt with them through Rogers, Stoner said.

Most clients came in and are cooperating with the investigation in hopes of getting their money back.

"We expect to recover every penny. We're still working with many of them on that. Some have had to pay again on the expense money with the understanding that we're going to get it all back," Stoner said.

A few clients declined to come in, Stoner said.

"For some, their suspicion is so deep that they just assume that this money is gone," Stoner said.

Stoner said that in addition to stealing from 18 of his clients, Rogers apparently scammed non-clients while working on the side — and sometimes while working in the office.

"We didn't realize a few of (the people who came to talk to her) were there on legal matters, and Debbie was lying to us about what they were saying," he said.

Stoner said he didn't realize what was going on until after Rogers left and non-clients started showing up to make inquiries about their cases.

"There were some people who were not our clients but obviously had been cheated by Debbie, and we have agreed to do their legal work without any attorney's fees. Even though they were not clients of mine, they certainly believed they were clients of mine," Stoner said.

The firm's English-speaking clients were not affected, he said.

Stoner said his office had no record of receipts shown to him by clients. Rogers apparently kept a second receipt book or wrote receipts from the back of the book and removed the carbon copies, he said.

Some of the fees weren't even legitimate, Stoner said.

"She was also calling the clients and telling them they had to pay for bogus expenses," he said. "She would call them up and tell them they had to pay this much money for an immigration document when they didn't have to do that."

Stoner said he notified police and the bar association, then began the long road to repairing the firm's reputation with the Hispanic community.

"We want to make sure that people know that we run a good law office that is well-regulated and has 20 years of practice," Stoner said. "The only reason this happened is because we depended on her to speak with our Hispanic clients. We want to reassure our Hispanic clients that she's going to pay for what she's done, and we're in it for the long haul."

"Whether you agree or disagree about current immigration policy and regardless of your feelings about undocumented immigrants, I think everyone is in agreement that Americans who take advantage of and cheat such people are wrong and should be brought to justice," he said.

Stoner said he hopes anyone else who has been a victim of fraud by Rogers will come forward.

Rogers was booked into Morgan County Jail on Thursday under the name Deborah Christine Hachichou. She gave her address as 1208 Brookline Ave. S.W., Apartment No. 8. She was released the same day on $1,500 bond.

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