Sengupta in New York
Feb. 14: In a stately, old London courtroom, Soma Sengupta was finally living her dream.
She had been admitted to a selective British law firm’s training programme, wowing them with her credentials: honours at Georgetown Law School; former prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney; defence 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 US 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 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 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.
Sengupta had, in fact, submitted many phoney 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 honour 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.”
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 lawyer has argued the case on technical legal issues, and has not challenged prosecutors’ assertions that 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 Sengupta’s life seem certain. She was born in India and grew up mostly in Jersey City, the daughter of an engineer. She did indeed graduate 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. 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 Sengupta had taken classes in a law school.
In 2003, Sengupta was fired from 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 Sengupta longed to practice public interest law.
None of the jobs materialised. In 2004, 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 Sengupta applied for admission to the British bar, she transformed her work after passing 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 defence 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.