A disbarred Hilton Head Island lawyer has been accused of cheating 10 people who paid him for immigration services he never provided -- and investigators say many more people might have been swindled.
Michael George Wyman, 55, was charged Tuesday with 10 counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent. The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office ICE Task Force is sifting through hundreds of files seized during a search of Wyman's Immigrant Angels Inc.
Wyman opened Immigrant Angels in March. The registered nonprofit organization at 10 Office Way advertised on its door "full service" immigration assistance. It abruptly closed in September, and victims began contacting the Sheriff's Office after discovering paperwork Wyman was supposed to have prepared for them was never filed with the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2002, Wyman was disbarred and sentenced to at least a year in jail for embezzling nearly $700,000 from a local couple during a real estate deal.
He was being held in the county jail Wednesday for prosecution, with bond set at $21,300, on the breach-of-trust charges, according to the Beaufort County Detention Center.
The victims say they paid him between $75 and $2,090 for immigration services, according to the Sheriff's Office.
They include Glaister Brockett, a Jamaican national who went to Wyman for help obtaining permanent residency after he married an American citizen. Brockett said he first contacted Wyman in December when Wyman was employed at another immigration service that was one flight of stairs above what would become Wyman's Immigrant Angels office.
Glaister said it took him and his wife eight months to save up more than $1,700. By then, the immigration services office had shut down, and Wyman had opened Immigrant Angels.
Brockett said he paid Wyman in money orders Aug. 15. After that, Brockett said he couldn't reach Wyman at his office -- a complaint echoed by other Wyman clients.
When Brockett discovered that Immigrant Angels had closed, he put a trace on the money orders. It showed they had been cashed. One was for $985 for rent at Courtney Bend apartments in Hardeeville. That's where Wyman lives, according to the jail log.
Brockett said another payment of $85 was sent to a Bluffton post office box belonging to Cynthia Lilly, Immigrant Angels' registered agent. The Sheriff's Office said no contact has been made with Lilly, and no one else is currently under investigation for fraudulent activity at Immigrant Angels.
Before opening Immigrant Angels, Wyman was an office manager at Lowcountry Immigration Services, an independent agency that opened in 2008 and was subsidized in part by St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church after it was authorized to do so by the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, according to a statement from the diocese.
Lowcountry Immigration Services closed March 30, 2012, and Catholic Charities opened in its place, the diocese statement reads.
Wyman then opened Immigrant Angels on the floor below, according to authorities.
The diocese was never associated with Immigrant Angels, did not collect money from any of its clients and has never received any of its clients' files, according to the diocese's statement.
In August, Wyman demanded that the diocese pay him $60,000, the statement said. In September, Wyman "showed up at the Chancery office in Charleston unannounced," eventually meeting with Sister Sandra Makowski after demanding to see a bishop and a vicar, the statement said.
A flyer posted to Immigrant Angels' door Sept. 20 told clients to seek refunds and documents from Makowski. The diocese said it had nothing to do with posting the flyer. Since then, Makowski has received about 25 calls, the statement said, and in every case, Makowski has referred callers to Cpl. Luis Resto with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office ICE Task Force.
A Sheriff's Office statement said investigators will tell Wyman's clients how to notify the Department of Homeland Security about the fraud on a case-by-case basis. However, they do not know how the victims' immigration status will be affected, the statement reads.
Victims seeking to recover their money "will most likely have to take civil actions," the statement said.
Reid Trautz, director of practice and professionalism with the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association, said a "real problem" has emerged with workers who leave accredited immigration services to start their own businesses, still claiming they have the credentials to prepare immigration forms.
"They're violating the law, and probably because they can get rich doing it," Trautz said.
Besides immigration attorneys, only accredited representatives with organizations recognized by the Executive Office of Immigration Review through the U.S. Department of Justice can prepare immigration documents, Trautz said. Still, Trautz said he recommends people seek licensed attorneys.
The Sheriff's Office ICE Task Force -- composed of deputies who are also certified as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents -- is leading the investigation. The charges against Wyman are not federal, Atlanta-based ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said.
Picard said the federal immigration agency "is monitoring the case but so far is not involved in the investigation."
Sheriff's Office ICE Task Force members "can exercise federal authority, but the investigations they conduct related to violations of state law do not necessarily come under that federal umbrella," Picard said.
- ICE investigating disbarred Hilton Head lawyer who offered immigration help, Sept. 20, 2012
- Diocese opens immigrant aid office on Hilton Head, May, 17, 2012
- Immigrants vulnerable to legal assistance scams, May 15, 2012
- Catholic church closes its Hispanic legal assistance office, July 8, 2008
- Lawyer ordered to repay stolen money, do jail time, July 23, 2002