YLS clinic poser pleads guilty to immigrant scam

More than a year before the “Shin-gate” scandal surfaced in the South Korean media, 56-year-old Ralph Cucciniello had already pulled a Shin Jeong-ah.

Like the Korean art history professor at Dongguk University who scored exclusive jobs with the help of her allegedly fabricated degree from the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Cucciniello, too, falsified employment with the Yale Law School as he scammed dozens of immigrants in the greater New Haven area.

Neither of them got away with it.

Cucciniello pleaded guilty Friday under the Alford doctrine — not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgement that there is enough evidence to reach a conviction — to three counts of larceny in the second degree, three counts of impersonating an attorney and one count of racketeering. New Haven Superior Court Judge Richard Damiani said he could sentence Cucciniello for 30 years if Cucciniello does not pay back the $300,000 he owes his victims. If Cucciniello does manage to pay it back, his sentence would be reduced to 20 years.

From early 2006 to May 2007, when he was arrested in New York for grand larceny and falsely representing himself as an attorney, Cucciniello claimed to the customers of his fraudulent New Haven-based immigration clinic that he had “found a loophole in the immigration laws and would be able to assist them in obtaining their Permanent Resident cards,” or green cards, according to the affidavit.

Cucciniello charged his clients an average of $5,000 for a service he never delivered.

Following his arrest in New York last May, investigators uncovered leads that suggested Cucciniello had committed larcenies in New Haven.

By late June, 57 individuals — mostly Irish immigrants — who enlisted Cucciniello’s services had been interviewed and gave corroborating accounts of the scam.

Cucciniello always had the answers — he was a lawyer at the fictitious “Amnesty Law Clinic” at the Yale Law School and worked out of an office in the building, the interviewed victims recounted.

The Associated Press reported that Cucciniello swindled roughly 60 immigrants in Boston, New York and New Haven out of $560,000.

In one scheme in early 2007, one of Cucciniello’s clients wired approximately $100,000 he had inherited from his father’s estate to Cucciniello.

Cucciniello had told the individual he was going to invest the money in the Russell Trust — which he said was a Yale-run fund that generated high interest. In reality, the Russell Trust is the parent business organization for the Skull and Bones society.

When Cucciniello was arrested, the individual tried to track down his money. It had been deposited in a Washington Mutual bank account in Bridgeport. The remaining balance: $32.12.

A lawyer representing the Law School said that Cucciniello was an “unpaid volunteer research assistant working on a project not associated with the Yale Law School at the request and direction of Yale Law School professor Steven Duke,” according to the affidavit.

At the time, Duke was representing Martin Taccetta, a prominent organized crime figure in New Jersey, in a murder appeal. It was Duke who gave Cucciniello key-card access, a net ID and a Yale e-mail address — all of which Cucciniello used to falsify his identity as a lawyer and an affiliate of the University.

Duke, a professor who specializes in criminology, is on a leave of absence this semester and could not be reached for comment.

Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy previously told the News in an e-mail that Cucciniello “has not been authorized by the Law School to undertake any activities or represent any clients.”

Conroy declined to comment Monday on Cucciniello’s plea, citing the University’s policy on refraining from comment on ongoing cases.

It was later revealed that Cucciniello had been previously arrested and convicted in California and New Jersey for grand theft and fraud. He had been indicted in Sept. 1989 in New Jersey by a grand jury that accused him of stealing roughly $380,000.

Cucciniello has been in custody since June of 2007 in lieu of a $3.5 million bond.

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