She failed the Bar exam. She started a law firm anyway. Now she faces prison.

Federal prosecutors accused Roberta Guedes of aggravated identity theft and mail fraud related to the establishment of what they say were two bogus law firms. Guedes agreed to plead guilty last month.
Sam M. Gibbons federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. [Times photo]
Sam M. Gibbons federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. [Times photo]
Published Nov. 12, 2019

TAMPA — Roberta Guedes has a law degree, but she twice failed to pass the Florida Bar exam. She didn’t let that stop her from pretending to be a lawyer.

Federal prosecutors say that in the months after Guedes graduated law school, she used the name of a classmate — one who did pass the Bar — to register two new law firms with the state Division of Corporations. She created websites for both companies, prosecutors said, touting fictitious national and international offices, and displayed stock photos of people who looked like lawyers but were not.

She even represented clients, accepting money to handle their immigration and family law cases, but never disclosed that she was not licensed to do so, court records state.

Guedes, 40, could now face prison time. She signed a plea agreement Oct. 30 admitting to federal charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.

The charges came months after Guedes settled a case the Florida Bar brought against her accusing her of practicing law without a license.

Guedes graduated from Stetson University College of Law in 2014.

Agnieszka Piasecka attended law school with her. The pair had plans to open a law firm together, according to court documents, but it never came to be because Guedes failed to pass the Bar exam.

Unlike her classmate, Piasecka did pass. She opened her own firm, which is based in Clearwater and specializes in wills and trusts, immigration, and divorce cases.

Guedes offered Piasecka the free use of an office in the Sykes building at 400 N Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa. Piasecka used the office a couple of times to meet clients, according to court records, but otherwise never visited.

In September 2014, Guedes incorporated a business dubbed Ferguson and McKenzie LLC. She listed Piasecka as a registered agent for the corporation without her knowledge, according to the plea agreement. She also listed another woman, Arlete Chouinard, as a vice president and manager for the business, also without her knowledge.

The following November, she started another business, Immigration and Litigation Law Office, Inc., the agreement states. She again listed the two women as officers in the corporation. The address for both businesses was listed as the office at 400 N Ashley Drive.

She used Chouinard’s name, social security number and other personal information to open bank accounts and multiple lines of credit, the plea agreement states. She used the accounts for personal and business expenses for the two firms.

Once her firms were established, Guedes used mass marketing to advertise legal services, according to the agreement. She printed and handed out business cards bearing Piasecka’s name and her own. A website for the immigration firm also falsely listed Piasecka as an attorney there.

Guedes began accepting fees to represent clients in legal matters.

One was a woman who sought help in bringing her Brazilian daughter to the U.S. Documents related to the case bore Guedes’ name and signature, but listed Piasecka’s Florida Bar number.

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In another case, a man hired Guedes to help with a divorce from his Brazilian wife, the plea agreement states. At one point, she traveled with the man to an immigration hearing in Orlando and appeared before Immigration Judge Daniel Lippman. In the hearing, she represented herself as Piasecka, according to the plea agreement. She also posed as Piasecka in a phone call with the judge a few weeks later.

A pair of Tampa judges caught wind of Guedes’ scheme when she appeared in a Hillsborough courtroom in December 2015. She went there with a Tampa man who had sought her help in filing a domestic violence petition. Like everyone else, he didn’t know she was not a lawyer.

She tried to contact both judges Frances Perrone and Chet Tharpe in an effort to have the case heard the same day, court records state.

A petition the Florida Bar later filed accusing Guedes of the unlicensed practice of law states that Judge Perrone later granted the man a temporary injunction and directed her judicial assistant to give his lawyer a courtesy call.

But the judge and her assistant could not find Guedes in the Florida Bar’s lawyer directory. They found her phone number through a Google search. When asked by the judicial assistant if she was a lawyer, the Bar’s petition states, Guedes replied, “You can just scratch through that part (of the petition)."

In a response to the Florida Bar’s case against her, Guedes denied allegations that she practiced law without a license and claimed that she merely assisted clients with court paperwork and translation services. But in an agreement filed with the Florida Supreme Court in February, she agreed to pay back the money she had taken from clients and to never hold herself out as an attorney again.

Guedes did not return multiple messages left for comment for this story. Her attorney in the federal case, Jason Mayberry, likewise did not respond to a request for comment.

Guedes is due in court for a plea hearing in December. She faces a minimum of two years in prison.