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Center for Latino Problems Mixes Altruism, Profit

Times Staff Writer

The man on the phone sounded desperate. He had been working at a factory for 13 years but had not been promoted because, he suspected, he is Latino. What should he do?

Moments before, an exasperated woman had called seeking help in collecting $1,000 from her former landlord, money that was borrowed more than a year ago. Neither caller spoke English.

The director of Centro de Proteccion Familiar (Center for Family Protection) scheduled appointments to work on solutions to their problems. Director Ana Rosa Rodriguez told the first caller that her staff could write letters to his supervisor and to the company president explaining the situation. She would also refer him to the state Department of Fair Employment & Housing. Rodriguez would arrange for one of her mediators to work with the other caller and her former landlord. The services would be provided free of charge.

The same services could be provided by a number of publicly funded, nonprofit social service agencies, but Centro de Proteccion Familiar has a distinguishing characteristic--it’s a business run by executives who mix altruism with profit.

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CPF is the brainchild of Spanish Research and Marketing, a South Pasadena-based advertising and marketing firm that specializes in tapping the Latino market.

CPF is a marketing operation that is advertised as a way to help first- and second-generation Latinos adjust to life in the U.S., while generating business for doctors and other professionals.

The idea is to assist and build good will in the Latino community by providing free services such as translation of rental agreements and other legal documents, mediation services for tenants and consumers and information on immigration questions.

In the process, CPF counselors come across people who need medical, legal and insurance services. Those people are referred to professionals, who pay a monthly fee to be part of the marketing program.

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How much is altruism and how much business?

“Fortunately we’ve done very well. We had a sense we owed something and wanted to give something back,” said Dennis Delmonte, one of three principals of Spanish Research and Marketing. “Obviously making money is great, but if you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, then what good is it?”

Officials of the business say that their referral system complies with state law and the ethical guidelines of the medical and legal professions regarding referrals to professional services.

The first CPF office was opened in the Pico-Union District of Los Angeles in 1986. A second office was established in Montebello last July and a third was opened in Santa Ana last month, Rodriguez said. A fourth office is scheduled to be opened in San Bernardino within two months. And the advertising firm hopes to eventually open offices in the South Bay area, the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles, Riverside, northern Orange County and San Diego, Delmonte said.

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The marketing technique has generated hundreds of referrals for doctors and other health professionals, who pay from $3,000 to $5,000 a month to be part of the cooperative marketing campaign, Delmonte said. More than 60 professional health offices and an insurance company participate, he said.

“We helped them (members of the Latino community) with those little problems that no one wanted to help them with because it didn’t make money,” Delmonte said. “That good will is coming back.”

Jesus Castanon of Los Angeles, for example, sent a $70 money order to a family in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez. After more than a month, it had not arrived and Castanon felt he was getting the runaround when he sought reimbursement from Western Union officials in Los Angeles. With the help of CPF, Castanon received his refund. There was no charge.

“It was thanks to them more than anything,” Castanon said in an interview.

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Dispute With Dealer

Leopoldo Lopez of Huntington Park said CPF helped him in a dispute with an auto dealer over the amount of money owed by Lopez. Again, there was no charge.

“They resolved the problem,” Lopez said. “I’m happy with them.”

Rodriguez estimated CPF resolves about 15 such cases a month per office.

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Spanish Research and Marketing was established in 1978 by Jorge Azpiazu, who was born in Argentina, and Tito Alvarez, a native of Puerto Rico. Delmonte, who said his parents are from Puerto Rico and Chile, became a partner later.

They started a cooperative marketing campaign for lawyers in 1978 that eventually became Centro de Proteccion Legal, a subsidiary of Spanish Research and Marketing. Delmonte said lawyers from about 350 offices in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties pay from $1,500 to $9,600 a month to participate in that campaign.

The monthly fee buys them a marketing program, which includes group advertising in Spanish-language media, instruction in how to relate to Latino clients and other assistance. The average legal office receives from 25 to 50 referrals a month from the program, Delmonte said.

Centro de Proteccion Familiar was formed when it became apparent that not everyone calling the legal branch needed a lawyer, Delmonte said. Centro de Proteccion Familiar uses similar group-advertising and referral techniques. Both subsidiaries also publish monthly magazines to provide their target audience with information on legal rights, medical and other issues. CPF distributes literature from various public agencies on issues ranging from consumer protection to drug abuse.

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Screen Professionals

CPF and the legal branch screen participating professionals for expertise and sensitivity toward Latinos, Delmonte said. That includes an office visit and a check for malpractice lawsuits, he said. Some professionals have been refused participation, and others have been expelled, he said. Again, altruism is mixed with good business sense.

“There are mills. They treat people like animals. They get them in, they get them out and bill,” Delmonte said. “We have to get people who are conscientious. Every participating office is a reflection of the whole program.”

CPF works out of sleekly appointed, storefront offices, each with several bilingual employees. On a recent week, the Los Angeles office received 226 calls, while the Montebello office received 243 calls, and Santa Ana had 113, according to CPF records.

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CPF makes referrals to medical professionals and lawyers in workers compensation, personal injury, general-civil, landlord-tenant and medical malpractice cases, said Rodriguez, the CPF director. Medical referrals result almost entirely from the workers compensation cases, she said.

In those cases, CPF counselors ask the claimant what his injury is, and appointments are made with doctors, chiropractors and other medical professionals, said CPF spokeswoman Bettina Netri.

Spanish Research and Marketing and participating professionals walk a fine line to avoid breaking state law regulating how doctors and lawyers get their business, officials said.

Medical referrals for profit are prohibited by state law, said Catherine Hanson, legal counsel for the California Medical Assn.

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A seldom-enforced state law prohibits “runners” or “cappers” from soliciting business for attorneys by frequenting hospitals, courthouses and other public and private places, officials said. That allowed for attorney referral services, which charge fees and advertise to drum up business.

1987 Legislation

Legislation was enacted in 1987 to regulate attorney referral services to guard against price-gouging and other abuses, but those new regulations are under review by the state Supreme Court and have not taken effect, said Anne Charles, a spokeswoman for the California State Bar.

Delmonte said his operation is legal because participating professionals are not guaranteed a set number of referrals for a fee. They are charged for a marketing program, from which they expect business as they would from traditional advertising, he said.

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Charles said the association was not familiar with the marketing practices and she, therefore, could not comment.

But an official with the California Medical Assn., after hearing a description of CPF’s program in an interview, questioned the ethics of the marketing program.

“Profit is clearly a criterion, the purpose for making the referral,” said Jay Michael, the association’s vice president for government relations.

Joyce Simmons, a consumer protection analyst with the state attorney general’s office in Los Angeles, said she reviewed the marketing program more than a year ago for fraudulent advertising claims but found no violations. The review was done under the auspices of the Immigration and Amnesty Task Force based in the the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. The operations of many area businesses offering services to immigrants were reviewed during the amnesty application period.

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Referrals aside, Rodriguez said one of her key responsibilities is to teach clients that they are not powerless to combat, say, a dishonest landlord or car dealer.

Since the inauguration of the immigration amnesty program, more immigrants who figure they will be able to stay legally in this country are buying large-ticket items such as cars and making other decisions that require knowledge of business dealings and legal protections, Rodriguez said.

Ironically, Rodriguez said, the majority of disputes mediated by her counselors involve Latino businessmen.

“A lot of Hispanic businessmen are committing fraud in plain daylight,” she said.

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Spokesmen for several Los Angeles immigration and consumer agencies and private immigrants’ rights organizations said they had not heard of CPF or CPL. Some said it sounded as if the programs could be providing a valuable community service.

But a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, which is composed of 40 immigrants’ rights groups, issued a word of caution similar to what Rodriguez and her staff might tell people.

Said spokeswoman Linda Mitchell, “If people are offering you free services and referring to somewhere where you have to pay money, you should find out what you’re getting for your money.”


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