Disgraced South Florida lawyer Jose Camacho forged over 100 judicial signatures on financial settlement cases — but the baffling part was that he wasn’t really making any extra money off the illegal shortcuts.
Instead, Camacho claimed, he was overwhelmed with work and merely wanted to avoid waiting for backlogged judges to sign off on the paperwork.
“I’ve always been responsible. I was raised to do things the right way. I had a lapse in judgment,” Camacho testified on Tuesday in Broward criminal court.
Broward Circuit Judge Marina Garcia-Wood — who appeared not on the bench but at the podium as a victim of Camacho’s forgeries — put it more bluntly.
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“He was lazy,” she testified. “He was purely lazy.”
For his impatience and flippancy with the pen, Camacho was sentenced Thursday to 364 days in jail, plus 10 years of probation. He pleaded guilty to 14 felonies.
Camacho’s career as an attorney is now over.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, assigned by the governor to preside over the case because the victims were Broward judges, called Camacho’s forgeries an “attack on the system.”
“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 only only reinforce that stereotype, but you buttress the idea that lawyers can’t be trusted.”
Camacho, 47, will surrender to begin his sentence next month.
The sentencing concluded a case that puzzled South Florida’s legal community. Colleagues knew Camacho as an affable father of three with strong ties to the justice system — his father was a longtime Miami-Dade cop and his sister was a Broward prosecutor who now serves as a police department legal adviser.
Camacho, of Virginia Gardens, specialized in handling what are known as “structured settlements,” in which a party in a financial dispute agrees to payments over a set period of time rather than in one lump sum. The deals have to be approved by a judge to ensure that they are fair for both sides.
But starting back around 2012, South Florida court dockets were swollen with real-estate foreclosure cases. For lawyers such as Camacho, who thrived on quantity of cases, it meant long waits for judges to approve what might seem like perfunctory orders. So he began turning in the bogus orders to the clerk of courts, who recorded the settlements.
“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.
Camacho, as were many lawyers, were allowed to take the orders by themselves to the clerk’s office.
“He used his charming personality to gain the trust of Broward judges,” said prosecutor Ryan Kelley.
The scam was uncovered when Garcia-Wood spotted an order that was signed in her name on a date when she was out of town. She confronted Camacho, who sputtered and gave various excuses before calling his defense lawyer.
Camacho, with his lawyer’s permission, confessed to forging the signatures of at least eight judges in Broward County over the years. He cooperated from the outset, hoping to get leniency at sentencing.
Since then, Broward has changed its policies. Now a clerk of court must accompany lawyers in turning in orders signed by judges.
“I’m sorry for his family, but Mr. Camacho did something very bad,” Garcia-Wood told Judge Venzer. “Probation is not an appropriate sentence.”