A Southtowns judge, who until recently was a lead partner in a prominent downtown Buffalo law firm, is being sued for allegedly defrauding his longtime friend out of more than $368,000 from his client trust account with the firm, Erie County court documents show.
Donald L. Miller, 71, of Lake View, filed suit in State Supreme Court alleging his friend, Thomas J. Wojciechowski, 66, while a partner and head of the Bouvier Partnership LLP’s General Practice Section, drew up fictitious mortgage documents containing faked signatures of other clients in order to steal Miller’s investment money.
“It would be bad enough stealing the firm’s money,” Thomas Burton, Miller’s attorney in the suit, said when contacted by The Buffalo News. “This is much more onerous. It’s digging into money [that] firms protect in trust. That’s as sacrosanct as it gets.”
The News also learned that Wojciechowski is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation as a result of the alleged misconduct. Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III would not confirm an investigation.
But Patrick J. Brown, Wojciechowski’s lawyer, confirmed that he has discussed with the DA’s office the matter involving his client. He said he couldn’t offer many comments yet about the allegations contained in Miller’s lawsuit because it is still being reviewed.
“The allegations are obviously very serious, and we take them very seriously,” Brown said. “He [Wojciechowski] recognizes the gravity of the situation.”
Miller’s civil lawsuit also names the Bouvier Partnership, with offices at 350 Main St., as well as Peter J. Martin, a managing partner at Bouvier, and any other lawyers or associates who “signed checks drawn against” Miller’s trust account from 2003 to 2012.
It accuses Bouvier and its partners of failing in its fiduciary duties and obligations to protect Miller’s money, which was lost due to the firm’s negligence. The lawsuit demands ordinary as well as punitive and other damages in addition to statutory interest and attorneys’ fees. The suit also seeks an accounting of Miller’s money, which Burton said comprises “a major component of his retirement” and has now “vanished.”
“What’s troubling here is more than a half-million dollars went into the firm’s trust for a legitimate purpose,” said Burton, noting that the Bouvier Partnership was listed as the “payee” on every check Miller produced for his trust account.
“From Miller’s perspective, every deposit went to the law firm,” Burton said. “Given that, there’s a responsibility of the law firm that the funds don’t wind up in the wrong place, or even worse, missing completely, which is what we have heard.
“A law firm can’t put its head in the sand and duck the responsibility to protect clients’ trust funds,” he said.
Terrence M. Connors, the attorney defending the Bouvier firm, said Wojciechowski – one of Bouvier’s longest-tenured partners – was expelled from the partnership by a vote of the partners “as soon as they learned of the misconduct.”
Connors said the firm first came to know of Wojciechowski’s alleged conduct after being contacted by Miller in August.
While it’s not uncommon for a civil lawsuit to name additional parties alleging vicarious liability of the firm or others like this one does, Bouvier is in no way involved, Connors said.
“They steadfastly deny they had any involvement in any of these allegations against Mr. Wojciechowski,” Connors said. “The Bouvier firm is doing everything within its power to resolve these matters for their clients as expeditiously as possible.”
Miller’s lawsuit, which has been assigned to State Supreme Court Judge Joseph R. Glownia, alleges that between Oct. 1, 2003, and Aug. 31, 2012, Miller delivered $513,000 in checks to the Bouvier Partnership for deposit by the firm into his client trust account.
Wojciechowski – a 40-year attorney, acting part-time Blasdell village justice and 1970 graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Law – allegedly told Miller he would invest the money to buy mortgages where mortgagors agreed to pay Miller principal and interest.
In all, about $423,000 made it into Miller’s account. Three checks – in October 2010, December 2010 and May 2011 – written by Miller to Bouvier totaling $90,000 were allegedly cashed or misdirected by Wojciechowski and were never deposited into his account, according to the lawsuit.
In all, 13 mortgages, valued at nearly $500,000 were apparently drawn up by Wojciechowski.
“It appears from the documents that Wojciechowski executed them,” Burton said. “But, it’s difficult to say because they’re forgeries.”
Either way, Miller had received copies of the mortgage notes with the names of the purported borrowers, collateral property and amount of the mortgage.
The payments on the notes were to be made in care of Wojciechowski at Bouvier.
From time to time, Miller received payments from Bouvier, which just advanced the apparent scam. In all, he received back about $150,000, Burton said.
The money Miller received, however, was actually his own.
“All he got was some payments back disguised as interest from the phony mortgages,” Burton said. “In reality, it was just his own money coming back to him.”
What Miller didn’t know was that not only were the mortgage documents never recorded with the Erie County clerk, the borrowers – real people, many of whom are Bouvier clients – never signed the documents. Their signatures, according to the lawsuit, apparently were forged.
It was news that shocked James A. Wyzykiewicz and his son, Jeffery, of Elma. Both men had been listed by Wojciechowski as having taken out mortgages in December 2010 – for $25,000 and $40,000, respectively – with Miller’s money.
Neither knew the fraudulent mortgage documents existed until last Friday, when they received a letter from Burton explaining his theory of the case.
“I was pretty surprised because it’s a forged document,” said James Wyzykiewicz, who acknowledged that Wojciechowski had been his longtime real estate attorney. “I own a few properties [Wojciechowski] has handled. We’re totally taken aback as to how he could do this.
“It’s clearly forged. It’s not my signature,” he said.
Any anger at the incident was tempered by the fact that Wyzykiewicz is in no way liable financially because the purported mortgages were forgeries and never recorded or filed with the county clerk.
Still, he added: “I’m not happy about it.”
Miller became suspicious in late August when repeated attempts to contact Wojciechowski at Bouvier went unanswered.
“He went to call for the guy and they said he’s somewhere else,” Burton said.
Subsequent to that, Miller met with Martin and another Bouvier partner and he was provided a client trust account statement, a document he had not received from the firm over the previous nine years, according to Miller’s complaint.
Not only did the accounting statement show that only $423,000 in funds had been deposited, but there were numerous other suspicious transactions unknown to Miller. Included in those were several remittances to the U.S. Treasury and state Tax Department for purported income tax payments, as well as a $2,300 deduction on Oct. 6, 2011, for a septic system and $8,000 a day later for the apparent purchase of a used 18-foot Boston whaler boat. Another boat purchase – for $6,113 – was deducted from the trust fund in March 2011.
Burton said Miller always remitted his own tax payments and “did not engage the law firm to pay his taxes.” He said Miller also has no knowledge of the purchases.
“Mr. Miller’s money was deposited into a trust fund for the better part of a decade and those funds have vanished,” Burton explained. “And, in many instances, they went to entities of which he had no familiarity.”
The ledger shows that Miller made his last deposit with Bouvier for $40,000 on March 14. Those funds were run down to zero by July 25.
Connors said Bouvier Partners are also busy reviewing the firm’s records, specifically those handled by Wojciechowski. “We believe the firm was also a victim of the defalcation,” Connors said, but exact monetary losses to the partnership from Wojciechowski’s alleged misconduct were not immediately detailed.
As if the forged mortgage scam isn’t enough, several collateral issues also surround the case:
• Mindie Hernandez, 40, Wojciechowski’s daughter, served nearly two years in prison for grand larceny in a 2007 case in which she stole $289,716 from Cole, Sorrentino, Hurley, Hewner & Gambino between May 2005 and December 2007 while working as the firm’s office manager. Hernandez used the money to pay off casino and online gambling as well as other personal debts.
• Wojciechowski was the subject debtor on a $121,659.31 federal tax lien from June 2010. Public records show he was released from the lien in April 2012.
• While Wojciechowski was managing Miller’s funds and estate planning, he was also named executor in Miller’s will. Had Miller died, Wojciechowski would have been the executor in charge of the same estate from which the alleged mortgage money had gone missing. And, because the mortgages were never recorded, the loss of Miller’s money would have gone undiscovered.
• Wojciechowski technically remains the assistant part-time justice in Blasdell, although he may not for long. “We are aware he has issues going on,” said Michael R. Petrie, Blasdell mayor, who explained Wojciechowski filled in for full-time Justice Daniel P. Grasso when Grasso was not available. “[Wojciechowski] hasn’t been on the bench for some period of time.” Added Petrie: “We are taking appropriate measures.”
• Other public records from 2012 show he was divorced from his wife, Barbara, deeded to her their Clifton Parkway, Hamburg, home in September, on the same day he granted power of attorney over himself to his son, Thomas P. Wojciechowski.