Little Pearls Adoption Agency target of RICO complaint
Special delivery detoured: Parents allege agency broke contracts regarding Vietnamese adoptions
By: Jane Meinhardt
TAMPA — Seven prospective parents have filed a federal RICO complaint against Tampa lawyer Richard B. Feinberg and Little Pearls Adoption Agency, a business he founded.
The complaint filed in Middle District court in Tampa on March 24 contends Feinberg, the adoption agency and Debbie Fischer, president of Little Pearls, collected nearly $140,000 in deposits for adoption services involving children from Vietnam but never completed the adoptions and kept the money.
State investigators also have received similar complaints and referred information about Little Pearls to law enforcement agencies.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include three couples and a would-be mother. They are seeking punitive and compensatory damages for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to the complaint.
They allege Feinberg and Fischer fraudulently engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity involving Little Pearls’ supposed expertise in Vietnamese adoptions from the Nam Dinh province.
Fischer could not be reached for comment.
Feinberg, a bankruptcy lawyer at P.R. Smith Law Group PA in Tampa and founder of Debt Relief Legal Centers, referred questions to his attorney, Jonathan Sbar.
Sbar, a shareholder at Rocke McLean & Sbar PA in Tampa, said it is his policy not to comment on pending litigation but added that Feinberg denies the complaint’s allegations. Feinberg has not been directly involved with Little Pearls “for some time,” Sbar said.
The Florida Department of Children and Families, which licenses child-placing businesses, shut down Little Pearls on June 10, 2008, after receiving and investigating complaints similar to those in the federal lawsuit, according to Pat Smith, press secretary for DCF.
“We also turned information over to law enforcement as we felt they had not provided service for prospective adoptive parents, and then we found that they were not licensed to do business in the province of Vietnam where the children were from. They were licensed in another province in Vietnam,” Smith said in an e-mail response to questions submitted by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
When DCF closed Little Pearls in mid-2008, the agency stated it would pay back prospective adoptive parents, she said.
DCF records show Little Pearls originally was licensed by the state in June 2004, Smith said. While DCF licenses agencies that do international adoptions, the department does not have “direct oversight” of each adoption an agency completes.
DCF conducted a background screening of Feinberg and Fischer as required for people working with child-placing businesses. DCF also conducts an annual licensing visit to these businesses and reviews sample cases.
In a 2006 deposition taken during a Pinellas County civil lawsuit involving child trafficking allegations against an adoption facilitator for Little Pearls, Feinberg said he believes problems with adoptions stem from amateurs trying to run adoption businesses.
“You know, I started this business just wanting to open the best, most prestigious adoption agency in the world. That was my objective,” he testified.
Feinberg also said in the deposition that he had “a unique concept” for his adoption agency: All fees would be kept in trust and guaranteed until an adoption was completed.
Money and a photo
The prospective parents who filed the federal complaint claim once they signed contracts for adoptions they were encouraged to send money to “hold” children for adoptions that would be completed in four to six months.
The would-be parents even were “matched” with Vietnamese children they were told they were adopting from the Nam Dinh province, according to the complaint. They paid Little Pearls different fee amounts ranging from more than $50,000 to $15,000.
The lawsuit alleges Little Pearls, Feinberg and Fischer fraudulently represented that the agency had a license for adoptions in that province when it did not.
The prospective parents who filed suit include a couple from Arkansas. They received a November 2007 application acceptance letter from Little Pearls signed by Fischer regarding adopting “baby girl NGBG510” from Nam Dinh province. The letter states that to expedite the referral process fees could be wired to the agency.
The payment due included $200 for their application, the agency fee of $7,300 and $6,000 for one-half of the country fee. The letter stated that the total to be paid for the adoption was $19,500, not including dossier fees and travel.
Sean Boynton, a Tampa attorney who filed the lawsuit, is one of the prospective adoptive parents. Boynton declined to comment because the case was in the process of being turned over to a different attorney.