Jose Manuel Camacho, a 47-year-old attorney of Virginia Gardens in the Miami area, claimed he forged the signatures of at least seven Broward County judges and was sentenced Thursday to 364 days in jail along with ten years probation. Camacho said he did it because he ran a high volume, busy practice and didn’t want to wait for official sign offs. “As silly as it seems, it was a matter of taking some shortcuts of a demanding, high-volume practice,” said his defense lawyer, Michael Dutko.
Starting in 2012, South Florida court dockets were overflowing with real-estate foreclosure cases, which meant it was tough for Camacho and others in the field to keep pace and wait for official signatures. “I’ve always been responsible. I was raised to do things the right way. I had a lapse in judgment,” Camacho, University of Miami Law School, testified on Tuesday in Broward criminal court.
In a structured settlement, a party in a financial dispute agrees to make payments over a certain period of time rather than forfeiting funds in one lump sum. Factoring transactions, according to the National Structured Settlements Trade Association, need to be approved by the court to ensure that the transfer of payments is in the claimant’s best interest. Camacho’s forgeries allowed factoring transactions to go through without court review, essentially taking future payments away from injury victims and transferring them to a factoring company with no scrutiny. In structured settlement agreements, the settlement recipient receives regular payments until the amount of the settlement is fully paid. Factoring agreements allow the settlement recipient to sell the rights to those regular payments to a factoring company. That company pays the settlement recipient a lump sum (typically discounted to be less than they would have received if they kept the regular payments), and then the factoring company collects the future payments. Settlement recipients do this typically because they need the money upfront.
Camacho got away with submitting the forgeries for some time because attorneys used to be allowed to take signed orders to the clerk’s office. That has since changed. “He used his charming personality to gain the trust of Broward judges,” said prosecutor Ryan Kelley.
Camacho’s forged signature was eventually discovered by Judge Marina Garcia-Wood, who noticed she “had signed” a document while she was out of town. She doesn’t believe Camacho is a responsible lawyer at all. “He was lazy,” she testified. “He was purely lazy.”
After the discovery, Broward Sheriff’s Detective John Calabro conducted interviews, uncovering a total 114 forged signatures. The other judges were Eileen O’Connor, John Luzzo, John Bowman, Thomas Lynch and Mily Rodriguez Powell.
Camacho cooperated with the court from the outset, hoping to get leniency at sentencing. But, his wish wasn’t granted. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, apparently assigned by the governor to preside over the case due to a potential conflict of interest because the victims were Broward judges, said Camacho’s forgeries were an “attack on the system.” (Some believe Venzer was actually appointed to the case because she would be more keen on attention to detail than any of the judge’s who missed the fact that their signatures were being used inappropriately time and again.)
In sentencing Camacho, Judge Venzer alluded a long held stereotype. “In today’s environment, lawyer jokes are abundant. You’ve heard the one about what’s 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start,” Venzer said. “You not only reinforce that stereotype, but you buttress the idea that lawyers can’t be trusted.” Venzer added, “I’m sorry for his family, but Mr. Camacho did something very bad. Probation is not an appropriate sentence.”