Fake Tampa lawyer gets four years in prison for fraud, identity theft

Roberta Guedes did not pass the Bar exam, but started her own fake law firm using the name of a real lawyer and a friend. She represented clients who did not know she wasn’t an attorney.
The Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa.
The Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa. [ Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2020

TAMPA — A woman who posed as an attorney even though she never passed the Bar exam, misleading judges and clients and running up bills in the name of a friend, will spend more than four years in prison, a federal judge decided Wednesday.

Roberta Guedes must serve 4 1/2 years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Senior U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. also ordered Guedes to undergo mental health treatment and to pay $14,318 in restitution.

Guedes, 41, previously admitted to charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. She offered a tearful apology Wednesday to the people she victimized.

“I’m deeply sorry for causing you so much pain, so much agony, so much distress,” Guedes said. “I acted selfishly, with no regard for others. I violated the trust others had in me.”

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

Guedes graduated from the Stetson University College of Law in 2014, but twice failed to pass the Florida Bar exam. She set up her own fake law firm anyway.

She dubbed it Ferguson and McKenzie LLC, and rented office space in Rivergate Tower at 400 N Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa, according to court records.

Without their knowledge, she listed a law school classmate, Agnieszka Piasecka, and a friend, Arlete Chouinard, as agents of the business, records state. She started another business, Immigration and Litigation Office Inc., again listing the women as corporate officers without their knowledge.

She used Chouinard’s name, Social Security number and other personal information to open bank accounts and multiple lines of credit, according to court records, and used the accounts for personal and business expenses.

She started a website for her fake firm, which falsely listed Piasecka as an attorney there and featured photos of people who looked like lawyers, but were not.

Guedes began taking clients, focusing on immigration and family law matters. She once appeared before an immigration judge in Orlando, identifying herself as Piasecka. In some instances, she signed her own name on court papers, but used Piasecka’s Florida Bar number, records state.

She also appeared once before Judge Frances Perrone in Tampa. She demanded the judge grant a petition she filed on behalf of a man who sought her help in a family law matter. Perrone discovered Guedes was not a lawyer. The Florida bar later launched an investigation of Guedes for the unlicensed practice of law.

Guedes claimed it was all a misunderstanding. She claimed she merely assisted clients with court paperwork and translation services. But she ultimately agreed to pay back the money she’d taken from clients and to never again claim to be an attorney.

Federal charges followed the Bar investigation. Guedes pleaded guilty late last year.

In court Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Murray said Guedes’ lies demonstrated a lack of respect for judges and the court system.

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Defense attorney Jason Mayberry asserted that Guedes is not indifferent to the suffering she caused. He also emphasized good qualities she has tried to show.

In a sentencing memo, the defense attorney wrote that Guedes has in recent months made face masks to protect the homeless from coronavirus. She has sponsored African children, the attorney said. And, he wrote in the memo, she has created her own charitable foundation with the mission of protecting animals. Exhibits included photographs of Guedes posing with sheep and cows and other animals she claimed to have saved from slaughter.

Mayberry suggested that his client suffers from mental health problems. He mentioned depression and anxiety, but did not imply that they were the cause of her criminal behavior.

In a letter to the judge, one of the victims described Guedes as glib, grandiose, a pathological liar, cunning and manipulative, and lacking in remorse and empathy.

The victim, identified in court records only as “A.C.," described how Guedes used her identity to run up debts in her name. It destroyed her credit history and took years working with banks and creditors to try to fix. She wrote that she fears Guedes will seek retribution.

“I truly believe Roberta Guedes is a dangerous person,” she wrote.

Another victim, identified in court records as “L.M.M.,” hired Guedes to help her daughter immigrate to the U.S. from Brazil. In a letter to the judge, she recalled how Guedes marketed herself to the Brazilian community as a “pitbull lawyer." After her false credentials were revealed, she continued to lie, the victim said, claiming she only offered translation services.

“Roberta Guedes is an evil person who broke the law by pretending to be a lawyer and hurt me and other people with her lies just to make money,” she wrote.

The judge ordered that Guedes, once released from prison, will be barred from making major purchases, obtaining lines of credit or accumulating new credit charges without the approval of a probation officer.