Unlicensed lawyer worked on USDA bias claims

A former Justice Department employee who worked on racial discrimination settlements between black farmers and the Agriculture Department lacked a license to practice law and is facing criminal charges in California.

Margaret O'Shea, a 38-year-old University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate, worked at the Monterey County Public Defender's Office from August to late September this year, handling 86 cases in a three-week period. Her supervisors, however, determined that she was not an accredited attorney.

From April to September 2002, O'Shea worked at the Justice Department as a general attorney, and was assigned to work on claims involving the $650 million settlement between the Agriculture Department and black farmers. The landmark racial discrimination case, Pigford vs. Veneman, alleged that black farmers were denied loans from the Agriculture Department because of their race.

According to the National Black Farmers Association, O'Shea negotiated a class of settlement cases that amount to as much as $4 million. The Justice Department may have to renegotiate the claims if a court determines that O'Shea did not have authority to sign government contracts.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of a House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, plans to hold a hearing into O'Shea's hiring by the Justice Department in late January. Chabot. held two hearings earlier this year on black farmers' settlement claims.

On Monday, O'Shea pleaded not guilty to grand theft for cashing paychecks on the premise that she was licensed to practice law in California. Her attorney, Enda Brennan, requested that the local district attorney be removed from the case and that the state attorney general's office take over. A hearing on that motion was set for Jan. 7.

According to the Monterey County Herald, O'Shea first claimed to have passed the California bar examination when she clerked for U.S. Circuit Court Judge Myron Bright in 2001. That claim resulted in a promotion and a pay raise.

When O'Shea went to work for the Justice Department, she submitted a letter from Bright stating that she was licensed to practice law. Justice spokesman Charles Miller told the Herald that because O'Shea was hired as a temporary worker, the FBI did not do a background check.

After Justice sought to hire O'Shea permanently and began a background check, she left the department to work in New York City and later at the Monterey County Public Defender's Office.

But O'Shea's career in the county, which is just south of her undergraduate alma mater, Stanford University, was short-lived.

"The biggest joke is that it was our little agency that were the ones that stopped her," said Dewayne Woods, the Public Defender Office's finance manager. "One of our attorneys brought it to our attention that someone looked for [her license] but didn't find it."

According to Woods, the cases O'Shea worked on as a public defender were mostly misdemeanors. Those defendants will get another opportunity to defend themselves in court.

While Brennan, O'Shea's lawyer, did not return calls for comment, he told the Herald that it was a "misnomer" to say that O'Shea practiced law at her previous jobs. "There are degrees of practicing law," Brennan said, "some of which require a license and some that don't."

The Justice Department has been criticized for fighting claims that the Agriculture Department agreed to pay under the terms of a 1999 settlement. The Black Farmers and Agriculturist Association has filed a suit challenging the denials and seeking $20.5 billion in damages.

The Environmental Working Group, a public-interest advocacy organization, reported in July that 81,000 of the 94,000 black farmers who sought restitution under the settlement were denied payments. According to the organization, the Justice Department has spent 56,000 hours and $12 million challenging more than 600 payments awarded to black farmers.

"It only adds insult to injury to have those cases fought by someone not qualified to fight them," said Arianne Callender, the Environmental Working Group's general counsel. "We are asking to check to see that all attorneys in the civil division are licensed attorneys."

The Black Farmers Association and the Environmental Working Group have asked the Justice Department to reconsider O'Shea's settlement decisions.

"The black farmer case has been a real mess," said National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd. "I think it's a crying shame the government would put an unlicensed attorney on the case, and make the American taxpayers pay for it."

In a letter to the Justice Department, the Environmental Working Group asked the department to notify all farmers in the settlement if unlicensed lawyers were assigned to their cases, and to reconsider denials in those cases.

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