ELIZABETH — The Union County Prosecutor’s Office arrested an Elizabeth woman yesterday afternoon and charged her with multiple counts of theft by deception after an investigation revealed that she was defrauding immigrants in the city, announced Union County First Assistant Prosecutor Albert Cernadas, Jr.
Mariza Chavez, 44, was charged with multiple counts of theft by deception and failure to make required disposition of property (both third degree crimes) as well as unauthorized practice of law, a fourth degree crime. Her bail was set at $30,000 by Union County Superior Court Judge Robert Mega.
According to an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Special Prosecution Unit, Chavez allegedly represented herself as an attorney to clients and told them that she would file documents with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service on their behalf, said Cernadas. She allegedly charged anywhere from $80 to $6,000 for the service, which she was not trained to perform. She allegedly would submit applications on client’s behalf that were incomplete, improperly filled out, or failed to contain the required fee. When the applications were eventually rejected and returned to her with a refund of the money submitted, Chavez allegedly pocketed the refunded funds.
According to the prosecutor’s office, Chavez has operated a group called Worldwide Foundation to Rescue the Immigrant at various addresses in Elizabeth for at least the last five years. Her group, also know as FMRI, operated out of a former church rectory in Elizabeth at 1100 East Jersey Street, authorities said. Previously she operated a similar organization at 55 Jefferson Avenue in Elizabeth as well as in New York, according to the prosecutor’s office.
During her meetings with victims, Chavez allegedly claimed to be an attorney. However, she is not licensed to practice law. When various victims called her office to inquire about the status of their application, Chavez allegedly would create various explanations to cover the fact that applications were rejected and that the money had been refunded to her.
The alleged thefts came to light after an attorney for three victims contacted the Prosecutor’s Office in September 2011. An investigation was immediately launched and to date investigators have interviewed approximately 10 potential victims, and reviewed various immigration applications related to the case.
This remains an active investigation. Authorities are asking anyone with information to contact Det. Johnny Ho of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office at 1-908-527-4551.
The charges against Chavez are merely accusations. She is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in court.