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Reporting your bar membership number as “N/A” might be expected to raise a red flag with most legal employers. But when Margaret O’Shea wrote exactly that in a certification she submitted for her new job in April 2002, her employer made no fuss at all. The easygoing outfit she was joining? The U.S. Department of Justice. That laxness has now come back to haunt the Justice Department. O’Shea is facing criminal charges in California for working as a public defender in Monterey County without being licensed to practice law. Though she has claimed she was admitted in California on May 29, 2001, the State Bar of California has no record of O’Shea ever passing the bar exam. The public defender’s office uncovered the 38-year-old O’Shea’s alleged fraud within three weeks of her August 2004 hiring. By comparison, O’Shea — an Ivy League law grad, a federal appellate clerk, and a big-firm summer associate — worked at Justice for about six months in 2002 and was never found out. This, even though the department famously employs an army of current and former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to carry out background checks on its own staff and those in U.S. attorney’s offices nationwide. Even summer interns are subject to screening. But O’Shea managed to get in under an odd exception. Like most big law firms, the Justice Department employs temporary lawyers to work on big matters. O’Shea held one of these “general attorney” positions in Justice’s Washington headquarters. At the time, department spokesman Charles Miller says, such lawyers were not subject to background checks, only self-certifications. Miller says the expense involved in background checks was a factor in the policy. O’Shea was eventually offered a permanent job and would have undergone a background check, but she chose instead to leave Washington for a nonlegal job with the Ford Foundation in New York. Since the O’Shea prosecution came to light, Miller adds, background checks have been instituted for general attorneys. But the incident may wind up costing the Justice Department more than embarrassment. O’Shea did not merely toil in a basement labeling documents. She was brought in to work on individual claims arising from a 1999 settlement in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture, represented by Justice, agreed to compensate a class of black farmers for past discrimination in the granting of agricultural subsidies. In that capacity, O’Shea worked on at least six cases, with responsibilities ranging from representing the Agriculture Department at arbitration hearings to simply calling to inquire about decision dates. The Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmer’s Association, advocacy groups working on behalf of the black farmers, had already been critical of the Justice Department’s aggressive approach to contesting farmers’ cases. They claim the department’s tactics have prevented thousands of farmers from receiving much or any compensation under a settlement that was originally thought to be worth more than $2 billion but has so far paid out less than half that amount. They are now calling on the Justice Department to reopen O’Shea’s six cases, which they say settled for far too little. “Margaret O’Shea worked to challenge these farmers’ claims even after the Agriculture Department admitted to discriminating against them for decades,” says Arianne Callender, a lawyer with the EWG. “To find out that she is not even a licensed attorney adds insult to injury.” Back in California, O’Shea has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge that she stole her public defender paychecks under false pretenses and to practicing law without a license, a misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for the felony is three years, but Terry Spitz, the prosecutor in the case, says jail time is unlikely for O’Shea, a first-time offender. Why O’Shea would engage in such a deception is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the case. On paper, O’Shea seems like someone who would pass any background check with flying colors. A 2000 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who went to Stanford undergrad, O’Shea clerked for Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Myron Bright and was a summer associate at both Hill & Barlow and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Her resume before and after law school is a laundry list of respected public interest organizations. Sandra Simkins, a trial attorney with the Philadelphia Defenders Association and Penn clinical instructor, says O’Shea was one of her best students, someone who showed real passion for the work of defending the indigent. “She called me just a few months ago to tell me about her becoming a public defender,” says Simkins. “It made so much sense. I’m just in shock over this.” She falsely claimed to be admitted as early as June 2001, when she had Judge Bright write a letter on her behalf describing her as a newly admitted “dues-paying member” of the California bar entitled to a bump in her clerk’s pay. (The judge did not return a call for comment.) Did O’Shea simply fail the bar, choosing to fake it instead of trying again? And how did she imagine she would not eventually be caught, with the truth ever a mere phone call away? Some answers may emerge if the matter goes to trial, though right now neither O’Shea nor her lawyer, Santa Cruz’s Enda Brennan, are answering questions, and Spitz is adamant that his case will begin and end with the fact that O’Shea was not admitted to practice. “There’s probably something psychological behind it,” he says, “but I got a C in psychology.” Anthony Lin is a reporter with The American Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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