Career at British bar is undone by chance discovery of a lie

Career at British bar is undone by chance discovery of a lie
New York:  In a centuries-old London courtroom, Soma Ms Sengupta  was finally living her dream.

She had been admitted to a selective British law firm's training program, wowing them with her credentials: honors at Georgetown Law School; former prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney; defense lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. There were glowing reference letters.

She had been called to the bar in a formal ceremony at Middle Temple Hall, a grand room where little has changed since 1602, when the first known performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was staged there. With her dark hair covered by a barrister's foppish white wig, she signed the registry of barristers who had stood in the same spot across the centuries, including John Rutledge, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, and Sir William Blackstone, the 18th-century legal scholar who wrote the seminal legal tome, "Commentaries on the Laws of England."

She began to handle criminal cases, nearly one a day over three months. In 90 more days, she would become a full-fledged barrister, the apex of a carefully curated career.

And then it all collapsed, undone by the chance discovery of a simple lie, that led to many more. A clerk for the British firm that had accepted Ms Ms Sengupta  stumbled upon her application file, and noticed that she had listed a date of birth that put her age at 29.

"Seriously?" the clerk thought, according to Edmund Blackman, a barrister with the firm, One Inner Temple Lane. "There is no way she's as young as she's saying on this form."

Questions were asked, which Ms Sengupta , who was, in fact, in her late 40s at the time, declined to answer. Eventually, it became clear that she had not only shaved nearly two decades off her age but that nearly everything about her work and education history was not as she had claimed.

Ms Sengupta  had, in fact, submitted many phony documents. The fraud was so comprehensive that the Bar Standards Board of England and Wales threw out an element of the application process that presumed a certain level of honor among its applicants; the board now requires that college transcripts come directly from the schools in a sealed envelope, without passing through an applicant's hands.

"The more information I obtained, the less clear the whole thing became," said Andrea Clerk, the Bar Standards Board official who investigated the case. "It was a very serious matter, indeed."

Ms Sengupta , 52, is on trial in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, where she faces forgery and other charges, the most severe of which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. Her boyfriend, Manuel Soares, a former vice president of BNY Mellon, faces the same charges in a coming trial.

Her lawyer has argued the case on technical legal issues, and has not challenged prosecutors' assertions that Ms Sengupta  forged documents and misrepresented her work history and age.

"We are conceding that some of this conduct, in fact, did occur," the lawyer, James Kousouros, told Justice Thomas Farber, who will decide the case without a jury.

A few facts about Ms Sengupta 's life seem certain. She was born in India and grew up mostly in Jersey City, New Jersey, the daughter of an engineer. She graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1998. And though she overstated other achievements, she had also passed the New York state bar exam and became a licensed lawyer in 2000.

The deceptions described in the criminal case against her began the same year. She applied for a job as a paralegal for the Manhattan district attorney's office, even though the office does not allow lawyers to work as paralegals. Ms Sengupta  claimed that she had left law school before graduating, and wrote that she was born in 1969, making her eight years younger than she actually was, according to trial testimony.

In the prosecutor's office, she handled somewhat more challenging work than most paralegals because her supervisor, Melissa Paolella, then an assistant district attorney handling white-collar fraud cases, knew that Ms Sengupta  had taken classes in a law school.

In 2003, Ms Sengupta  abruptly left the office after it became known that she was, in fact, a lawyer. She asked Paolella to write reference letters to help her apply for several staff lawyer positions, including with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey and the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Paolella did so, knowing that Ms Sengupta  longed to practice public interest law.

"Absolutely, I knew what her passion as a lawyer was," she testified.

None of the jobs materialized. In 2004, Ms Sengupta  began doing volunteer work two days a week for the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project. She did not appear in court or write briefs, her supervisor, Dori Lewis, testified.

But when Ms Sengupta  applied for admission to the British bar, she transformed her work afterpassing the bar into a remarkable saga of courtroom derring-do.

She claimed that she had been an assistant district attorney and had prosecuted "gang and white-collar fraud cases," which included working to convict 27 gang members who had controlled a section of East Harlem.

She wrote that as a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society she had defended "all felonies including murder and sexual offences," including handling the defense of a "man charged with commissioning the murder of a judge."

"I have over six years of advocacy experience in a common law system and I am in court on an almost daily basis," she wrote in her application to the Bar Standards Board of England and Wales.

She also claimed that she had graduated in the top 1 percent of her class at Georgetown Law, which prosecutors have suggested was not true. She filed a reference letter from Robert F Drinan, a former US representative from Massachusetts and Georgetown law professor; it was dated a year after his death.

Other reference letters, purportedly written by Paolella and Lewis, called Ms Sengupta  an accomplished trial lawyer. Both testified that the letters had been forged.

Her overstatements went undetected, and she won a highly competitive spot in a one-year training program, known as a pupilage, in which a prospective barrister works with a law firm, or chamber.

She was scheduled to start in October 2007, but she repeatedly failed a battery of tests that must be passed before a pupilage can begin. She hid the failures from the firm, saying she could not begin because she had been injured in a car accident. "Given that we have over 100 applicants for each place," Blackman, of One Inner Temple Lane, said in court, "the likelihood is that had we known that, we would have withdrawn the offer."

Rather than pass all elements of the test, Ms Sengupta  successfully appealed to the Bar Standards Board to waive one part, which she had failed twice. She began training with barristers in the firm. Halfway through her training, in July 2008, Ms Sengupta  was formally called to the bar by The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court entitled to call members to the Bar of England and Wales.

After six months, Ms Sengupta  began handling cases on her own. She was assigned some 80 criminal cases over three months, defending people accused of minor crimes.

Blackman testified that his firm grew somewhat reluctant to assign more difficult cases to Ms Sengupta , but she continued to practice. "In a general manner, her performance would not be what you would expect from someone with the experience she claimed to have," he said.

But it was Ms Sengupta 's age, not her job performance, that proved to be her undoing. After the clerk first aroused his suspicion of her, Blackman found that she had entered different years of birth on several forms.

"In the absence of an explanation as to why she had four different dates of birth, she was done," Blackman said during the trial. He added: "We had suffered a financial loss, but more importantly, she had been appearing in court when unqualified to do so."

His firm suspended her pupilage and reported its concerns to the Bar Standards Board, which opened an investigation. But Ms Sengupta , aided by Soares, who had transferred to BNY Mellon's London office, pushed on.

According to prosecutors, the two obtained a phony Georgetown seal from a Web-based business, rubberstamp.com, and created a fake diploma to match the misstatementson her application. They emailed one another drafts of forgeries, one with "My Masterpiece" written in the subject line. They forged an Indian birth certificate. They created a website for a fictional law firm in the name of a fictional former prosecutor, Donald Miller, and submitted a reference letter in his name.

They forged a letter, according to prosecutors, from the office of Eliot Spitzer, then the attorney general, attesting to how Ms Sengupta  "exercised rights of audience" in New York, using a term associated with British courts. Ms Sengupta 's lawyer, Kousouros, said the document was authentic.

In December 2010, the Manhattan district attorney obtained indictments of Ms Sengupta  and Soares after learning that their former paralegal had claimed to be a prosecutor for the office, and that the forged documents had passed through Manhattan. Three months later, the two were arrested at Kennedy Airport, where they had flown from London, as they awaited a connecting flight to Puerto Rico.

Citing the criminal trials here and an open disciplinary case in Britain, bar officials in London declined to discuss the matter, or to say whether it has caused other policy changes.

When Blackman was asked during the trial whether One Inner Temple Lane verified pupilage applicants' prior employment claims, he answered dryly.

"Stupidly, we did not," he said. "We do now."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: February 15, 2013 13:38 IST

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