AFTER TALKING to investigators in the Pennsylvania Treasury, I craved a belt of bourbon. And I don't even like bourbon.

That's how frustrating it was to hear them describe how hard they've had to work to keep James Jones away from other people's money.

"At our weekly meetings, after we go over normal issues, I say, 'So, what's the latest from James Jones?' " says Christopher Craig, Treasury chief counsel. "He takes up a lot of our time."

Let me introduce you to Jones, 57. He's a charmer I couldn't help liking, even if he talked in circles and referred to himself as "we."

When I asked about Treasury's allegations that he ripped off people he was supposed to be helping, he said, "We're not holding up money? Treasury is!"

You be the judge.

Jones is a "finder" whose one-man company, R&J Tracer and Recovery Group, helps people recover funds they're owed by the Philly Sheriff's Office. Basically, when the office sells a property to satisfy city tax liens, the owner is entitled to whatever profit remains after the liens are paid.

Since many of the homes have long been abandoned, their owners are often unaware that the properties have been sold. Or the owners have died without a will, and next of kin don't know they're in for a windfall.

The Sheriff's Office has five years to locate the proper claimants (though for a long time, the office, which is under FBI investigation, did no such thing). After that, the unclaimed money is forwarded to the Pennsylvania Treasury's Bureau of Unclaimed Property (BUP), which keeps a public list of those who are owed.

Finders like Jones use it to track down owners or their heirs and, for a fee, handle paperwork to submit a claim. Although state law caps the fees at 15 percent, no laws, unbelievably, require finders to register with the state or adhere to standard practices.

"We don't even know how many finders are out there," says Craig.

It's the Wild West.

Not that anyone needs a finder to claim what they're owed. If my own attempt to use the BUP website is any indication, the instructions for submitting a claim are pretty straightforward and phone help is available to decode the confusing parts.

Still, it's easy to see how finders could be useful for elderly claimants who haven't the steam to fetch required documents from the city's Register of Wills office or for those who are intimidated by government agencies.

Which makes them ripe for exploitation.

In July 2012, a sharp-eyed BUP investigator named Katie Beers flagged a claim for $5,648.91. It was submitted by James Jones on behalf of the estate of a deceased woman whose "sister," in a request to the city's Register of Wills, made Jones the estate's administrator.

The claim called for Jones to receive 100 percent of the money - far more than the 15 percent maximum. When Beers tracked down the "sister," the woman said she'd been a friend of the deceased, not kin, and said as much to Jones. His notarized forms stated otherwise.

Treasury denied the claim, and Beers began looking at prior claims associated with Jones.

One woman told Beers that she'd allowed Jones to become administrator of her mother-in-law's estate so he could more easily obtain the $7,185.53 she was owed. Jones later told her the claim had fallen through, says Beers. In truth, Treasury had cut a check to the estate for $7,185.53, which wound up in Jones' personal bank account.

Then there were Jones-initiated claims in which out-of-town heirs found their "signatures" on estate forms they'd never signed, says Beers. The signatures were notarized by Benedict F. Cayenne, a man they'd never met.

There was the case in which Jones disbursed almost half of a $28,958.31 claim into his personal bank accounts, without the knowledge of the family he was representing, says Beers.

And there were times when Jones charged finder fees greater than the 15 percent cap.

"We could've used that money," says Stanley Nicotera of South Philly, who claims Jones twice charged a 35 percent fee to recover funds owed on two properties. "I know - I'm an Italian from South Philly. But I'm not saying the guy should be whacked. He should be locked up, though."

Treasury thought so, too. In December, counsel Craig shared Beers' findings with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office for evaluation. D.A. spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson says the office can't comment on any case unless charges have been filed.

Craig also reported Benedict F. Cayenne, who notarized documents related to three of Jones' claims, to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees notary operations. Last week, the department revoked Cayenne's notary commission.

"I can't remember every case," shrugged Cayenne, when I asked him about those cited in the revocation.

And Beers has been in constant contact with the Register of Wills, sounding the gong every time a Jones claim goes south.

Register Ron Donatucci says Jones' estate-administration papers have been revoked in cases that Treasury flagged, but that his office couldn't have known about the improprieties before Treasury alerted them.

"If people come in and their paperwork is in order and notarized, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear their documents are correct, what can we do?" asks Donatucci. "We presume they're telling the truth."

His office is so stringent about proper identification, he says, they refused to issue letters of estate administration to a woman who, for religious reasons, wouldn't present a photo ID when she applied for them. She filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission.

"We won't settle," says Donatucci. "I'd rather get sued than risk giving money to the wrong person."

Speaking of lawsuits, last year Jones sued a former client, Charles Robinson of Southwest Philly, because he wouldn't pay Jones an extra fee once he learned it was improper.

"I already paid him $3,585.83, in cash," says Robinson. "He wanted more."

A judge sided with Robinson, but Jones has appealed. The men head back to court in January.

When I got ahold of Jones by phone, he offered a confusing answer for every question I had about Treasury's allegations. When I asked him to clarify his points, he contradicted what he'd said earlier.

Finally, Jones said he disputed the state's definition of a cap on his fees.

"If Treasury has a problem with me, they can talk to me directly. But they won't deal with me," he said.

No, says Craig, they won't. Instead, with each new claim Jones files, Treasury starts from scratch to locate those who Jones says he represents. The process can jam up a claim for months.

What's needed, says Craig, is a law that requires finders to register with the state, mandates proper practices, outlines disciplinary procedures and gives the BUP subpoena power during a finder investigation.

Most states already have such laws.

State Treasurer Rob McCord supports such a law and "intends to work with the Legislature to remedy this," says Craig.

My fear? That even a good law won't keep opportunists at bay. There's just too much unclaimed money in the BUP - tens of millions - to resist.

As Donatucci says, "You can put your hand on the Bible and swear you're telling the truth, but a crook is always gonna be a crook."

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

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