Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning consumers to use caution before dealing with Maryland-based Freedom’s Chance after families of two Missouri prisoners told BBB they paid the business more than $2,000 each to file clemency paperwork on their behalf, but the paperwork was never filed.
Freedom’s Chance, based in Lusby, Md., bills itself as “The Clemency Professionals.” The business says its “sole purpose [is] working with the family and friends of over sentenced individuals incarcerated in Federal and State prisons.”
Business owner John E. Christensen pleaded guilty to federal identity theft and student loan fraud charges in Arizona in 2004. He spent 41 months in federal prison and established the business in 2008 when he was still on federal probation. Federal authorities said Christensen, 76, used the identities of prison inmates serving long prison sentences to acquire more than $300,000 between 1999 and September 2003.
Christensen told BBB he has a “zero percent” success rate among his Missouri clients and that he does not disclose the fact that he is a convicted felon to potential clients.
“If I didn’t conceal my past, I wouldn’t get any business,” Christensen told BBB.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said prisoners seeking to have their sentences reduced should research how clemency works.
“In Missouri, there is no cost for prisoners wishing to file clemency paperwork nor do they have to hire an attorney,” Corey said. “This business appears to be taking advantage of prisoners and their families by offering them false hope of an early release. The chances of a prisoner having a sentence commuted are very small. Furthermore, be cautious of giving
personal information to someone previously convicted of ID theft.”
A St. Louis woman filed a complaint with BBB after she said the business failed to file paperwork in her son’s case. The woman told BBB she gave Christensen $2,465 in an attempt to get her son’s 15-year sentence for armed robbery shortened. The family completed payment on the bill in June 2016, and Christensen told the family he submitted paperwork for the case. An employee with the Missouri Division of Parole and Probation said no clemency paperwork has been filed in the man’s case.
(After issuing this news warning, however, BBB was informed by the Missouri Division of Parole and Probation that the information originally given to BBB in this matter was incorrect. Commutation paperwork was filed by Christensen in June, 2016.)
The man’s mother told BBB Christensen had cut off communication with her and the family after they complained that nothing was filed.
“He is really scum,” the woman said of Christensen.
A Kansas City woman filed a complaint with BBB saying no paperwork was filed in her husband’s case after she paid Freedom’s Chance $2,225 in March 2014. She was hopeful her husband’s 30-year sentence on rape, robbery and sodomy charges would be reduced.
“We have no proof that John Christensen has performed any of the services for which he was paid,” the woman wrote in her BBB complaint.
The Missouri Division of Parole and Probation said no clemency paperwork has been filed in that case either.
(After issuing this news warning, however, BBB was informed by the Missouri Division of Parole and Probation that the information originally given to BBB in this matter was incorrect. Commutation paperwork was filed by Christensen in April, 2014.)
Christensen said he does not keep copies of the paperwork he files “because of my background, I don’t want their personal information.” He also said it costs too much to make copies of all of the documentation.
BBB spoke to a St. Louis family that was satisfied with the work Freedom’s Chance did in their uncle’s case. Clemency documents for the man, serving a life sentence on an armed robbery conviction, were filed with the state in February 2016. BBB also spoke to a federal inmate from Michigan who said he worked with Christensen prior to receiving a pardon from President Barack Obama in December 2015 in a non-violent drug case and was “more than satisfied” with Christensen’s work.
BBB could not determine whether Christensen’s work played any role in the pardon.
Christensen told BBB he has filed paperwork for all of his clients.
“The only way I can get in trouble is by not filing,” Christensen said. “I can file something on a piece of toilet paper, but I have to file it. […] I can pull the file up and fill it out in five minutes, but we put a lot more into it than that.”
Christensen still owes more than $230,000 in restitution from his 2004 federal conviction. He told BBB he pays the federal government $100 a month. In February 2015, Christensen filed a petition to have the monthly payments forgiven, saying “I just don’t make enough money.” He said he lived off a Social Security payment and nothing else. He did not include the money he made from Freedom’s Chance. The court denied his petition.
Christensen does not claim to be a lawyer. He refers to himself as a legal advocate and a mitigation specialist. He told BBB he started his business in Mesa, Ariz., in 2008 before moving to Sarasota, Fla., and then to Lusby, Md.
In a brochure for the business, Christensen wrote that he first started working with Missouri inmates in the early part of 2012. He would not tell BBB how many clients he has had in Missouri or how many current cases he has in the state. He said he also works with prisoners in six other states, but declined to tell BBB which states.
He claims he operates as a not-for-profit business, but BBB could locate no paperwork showing the business as a non-profit.
On his business website and in documents he sent to the St. Louis family who filed a BBB complaint, Christensen identifies himself as John Christenson. In all legal documents, including correspondence with the federal government and in his application for a trade name with the state of Maryland, his last name is spelled Christensen.
When asked why his last name was spelled differently on his website and correspondence, Christensen said “it must have been a typo.” BBB found two instances of the misspelling on the business website – the only two times his name is on the site – as well as seven instances of the misspelling in correspondence with the St. Louis consumer that stretched over a 19-month period.
BBB offers the following tips for consumers seeking legal advice:
St. Louis area media contacts: Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, (314) 584-6743 or (314) 681-4719 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org
Shellie Kreter, PR & Communications Manager, (314) 584-6723 or (314) 348-5451 (cell), email@example.com
Don O’Brien, Investigator, (314) 584-6727, firstname.lastname@example.org
Columbia media contact: Sean Spence, Columbia Regional Director, (573) 886-8965, email@example.com
Cape Girardeau media contact: Joey Keys, Cape Girardeau Regional Director, (573) 803-3191, firstname.lastname@example.org
Quincy media contact: Mara Clingingsmith, BBB Quincy Regional Director, (217) 209-3972 or (217) 242-6272 (cell), email@example.com
BBB is a nonprofit, business-supported organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Most BBB services to consumers are free of charge. BBB provides objective advice, free BBB Business Profiles on more than 5.3 million companies, 11,000 charity reviews, dispute resolution services, alerts and educational information on topics affecting marketplace trust. Visit bbb.org for more information.