CLEVELAND (CN) – Nine people and two businesses say the Baker & Hostetler law firm helped a woman run “an inheritance scam” in which she claimed to have $14 million in Burkina Faso, Africa, but needed “certain funds to pay for legal, administrative and other fees and costs in order to have the $14,000,000 released.”
The “investors” say they lost more than $1 million in the scam cooked up by Willa Burton, allegedly assisted by the law firm and attorneys Paul Feinberg and William Culbertson.
“Burton, together with the assistance of the law firm, through her attorneys Feinberg and Culbertson and other ‘Does,’ bilked the unsuspecting, innocent investor plaintiffs out of significant amounts of monies by communicating and representing to them that Willa Burton needed certain funds to pay for legal, administrative and other fees and costs in order to have the $14,000,000 released,” according to the complaint in Cuyahoga County Court.
The plaintiffs say Burton told them “that she was entitled to receive a large inheritance in the amount of $14,500,000, left to her by her father, from the African county of Burkina Faso.” But there was a catch: “in order to have the $14,500,000 released to her, she needed to pay various handling charges and government fees.”
The complaint states: “Burton, together with or with the assistance of the law firm, communicated and represented that the $14,500,000 existed and the inheritance was legitimate, and further promised and represented that the investor plaintiffs would receive a significant return on their financial investment of assisting Burton to achieve the release of the $14,500,000.
“All defendants knew or should have known that the inheritance scheme was in fact a scam, but nonetheless continued to represent falsely to the investor plaintiffs that the scam was a legitimate enterprise.
“The law firm, in and through the individual attorneys Feinberg and Culbertson, as well as ‘Does,’ actively and directly worked with Burton on the scam, participated with Burton in the scam, provided substantial assistance to Burton in the scam, and received financial benefits for its work, participation and assistance.”
The plaintiffs say that because of the “imprimatur of legitimacy of the scam provided by the law firm,” they “invested” in “promissory notes and promises of repayments with high rates of return.”
But the plaintiffs say they got nothing but “worthless promissory notes and false promises.”
The plaintiffs say Burton told them she had worked with Baker & Hostetler for 15 years, then went into the mortgage business. They do not state whether that allegation was true, but say they met her and Culbertson “and or another law firm attorney” in a conference room at the law firm.
Feinberg, allegedly on vacation, participated by telephone, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim that Burton, Culbertson and Feinberg promised three of the plaintiffs “an additional $500,000 consulting fee” apiece, if they would put money into the deal.
And they say that Baker & Hostetler “did draft and supply the promissory notes for the investment program.”
One plaintiff says he was “terminated from his position as officer of [plaintiff] Family Home Providers because of the failed investment.”
The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for fraud, securities fraud, negligent misrepresentation, aiding and abetting and conspiracy.
They are represented by Harvey Bruner.