Lawyer disbarred with espionage conviction shouldn’t regain law license, ethics panel says

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A lawyer disbarred because of an espionage conviction shouldn’t be reinstated to law practice because she hasn’t proven that she can be trusted or that her mental health issues have been resolved, a hearing panel has concluded.

The reinstatement petition by disbarred lawyer Theresa Squillacote should be denied, according to a July 26 report and recommendation by an ad hoc hearing committee of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals’ Board on Professional Responsibility.

Squillacote became a lawyer in 1984, was convicted in 1998, was disbarred in 2002 and was released from prison in 2015, according to the report and recommendation. She began work as a paralegal in the area of criminal defense after her release.

Squillacote was a lawyer with the Department of Defense when she was accused of passing four classified documents to an FBI agent posing as a South African intelligence officer. She and her husband had initially worked with East German “handlers,” but she didn’t get the defense job and the access to documents that it provided until East Germany collapsed.

The hearing report included information on Squillacote’s background. She had been born “with significant physical infirmities,” which required many corrective surgeries, the hearing committee said. Those childhood experiences affected her mental health, psychiatrists testified at Squillacote’s criminal trial.

Squillacote’s father was an attorney devoted to social justice. Her future husband was “an intellectually powerful New Yorker of German descent” who was active in the socialist-communist movement, according to the hearing committee. She later learned that his family was involved in underground activity involving East German communists, and she had to participate if she wanted to be with her future husband.

Squillacote was recruited by East Germany’s foreign intelligence agency as an agent targeting the U.S. government, although she at first thought that her contacts were “very important communists.” Squillacote later began an affair with one of the contacts, who began working with the KGB after the Berlin Wall fell.

Squillacote enrolled in a government contracts program at the George Washington University Law School in hopes that it would help her obtain a job that would aid her cooperation with the East Germans.

After Squillacote gained a secret security clearance at the Department of Defense, she tried to establish an espionage relationship with an official in Nelson Mandela’s government. Mandela was the president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Her East German contact ended their affair, and she collapsed psychologically, the hearing report said.

Squillacote claims that the FBI exploited her psychological vulnerabilities when she passed along the documents to the agent, thinking that he was the South African official.

In prison, Squillacote helped establish a Catholic congregation, organized the law library, helped start an inmate newsletter, developed legal research and civics training materials for inmates, and joined criminal reform groups. She also sought out therapeutic programs.

After her release, Squillacote rebuilt ties with her family and obtained mental health therapy. She became deeply involved in volunteer activities for her church and with the Bronx, New York City, community.

The hearing committee outlined some issues of concern. One involved an arrest at the Home Depot and another involved Squillacote’s effort to continue work on her LLM at the George Washington University Law School.

Squillacote was arrested at the Home Depot in 2016 because staff members thought that she was trying to return an item that she had not bought. She was charged with attempted petty larceny. In court, she agreed to a contemplation of dismissal in which the charge would be dismissed after six months if she did not get rearrested.

In her petition for reinstatement, Squillacote said she was arrested for disorderly conduct because she was “sarcastic and quick to snap back” at the Home Depot employee. When asked for more details, she said she was charged with “petty theft/disorderly conduct” after she was in the return line with an item that she wanted to buy and an item that she wanted to return. She said the charge was “ultimately dismissed.” She attached papers showing that the dismissal was the result of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

The George Washington University Law School allowed Squillacote to continue work on her LLM. She did not disclose to school officials that she initially pursued the degree to allow her to infiltrate the U.S. government.

She received the LLM degree in May 2020.

The hearing committee said it had no reason to doubt Squillacote’s testimony that she is ashamed of her criminal conduct. The committee also said it commended Squillacote for the numerous good things that she has done and her apparently successful reintegration into society.

But the issue, the hearing committee said, was whether Squillacote could avoid future wrongdoing.

The hearing committee said Squillacote displayed a lack of candor when she said the Home Depot charges were dismissed and when she failed to disclose to the George Washington University Law School why she first sought the LLM.

The hearing committee also said Squillacote had intended to call two mental health professionals to testify on her behalf, but neither agreed to appear, even though the hearing was by videoconference. Both submitted letters on her behalf, however.

“We are left with a record in which petitioner relies on her mental health issues to explain her criminal conduct (or at least put the conduct in a more favorable context) but fails to offer live testimony from mental health professionals to support her contention that her mental health issues have been resolved or at least are sufficiently controlled,” the hearing committee said.

On the plus side, the committee said Squillacote had demonstrated that she had the qualifications and competence for reinstatement. At the George Washington University Law School, she had received an A grade on a 90-page paper on attorney-client privilege and an A-plus in a constitutional law seminar that involved drafting two U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

Hat tip to the Legal Profession Blog, which had highlights from the recommendation, and, which had coverage.

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