Some things to keep in mind about the now defunct (and entirely unethical) Unicredit America, Inc., (which we’ve covered in the past, both here and here): They constructed and used a fake court room in pursuing debtors. Also, Unicredit America president Michael Covatto is related to the very real Erie 6th Ward District Judge Dominick DiPaolo (they’re cousins; that second point will become pertinent in a bit.)

Most recently, Unicredit America used their fake courtroom to get some cash out of Marilyn Johnson, who owed a little over $4,000 to a funeral home after the death of her husband. What they succeeded in getting was $2,000 and the title to Howard Johnson’s 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier. Howard Johnson is Marilyn Johnson’s son.

Unicredit was able to coerce Johnson into giving up his car title by threatening to put his 73-year-old mother in jail. Johnson was able to get his car title back after suing Unicredit.

The Johnsons went to court against Unicredit on 3 May, alleging deceitful practices and improperly filed judgments. The Johnsons live in Erie’s 5th Ward; the judgment was filed in Erie’s 6th Ward — which also happens to be the ward where Unicredit America’s president’s cousin, Judge Dominick DiPaolo, sits.

Unicredit relied a lot on Judge DiPaolo and the 6th Ward — even when debtors lived up to 45 miles away. As Lisa Thompson, who has covered the story thoroughly for the Erie Times-News, points out, the ethics of this Family Affair are murky. DiPaolo and Covatto are cousins. Pennsylvania laws only “prohibit magistrates from hearing cases involving close family members, such as spouses, parents, children, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews.”

Judge DiPaolo wasn’t involved in the fake courtroom. He’s an actual judge who’s actually running for reelection. (Good luck.) He is the judge, however, who signed the orders on over half of Unicredit America’s debt collection efforts.

The fake courtroom was just another effort to collect a debt.

It was used primarily to threaten debtors who didn’t respond to initial contact or judgments. It was dressed to look like an actual courtroom, with a woman pretending to be a judge. (Unicredit America would later suggest that they never said the woman was a judge; she was simply a notary dressed in all black the way notaries are want to do.)

Unicredit America was shut down back in November of 2010 — along with the fake courtroom. Judge Michael E. Dunlavey cited “the need to protect debtors and preserve the integrity of the Erie County Court system.”

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