Roydera Hackworth saw a chance to help people when she left her job as a chemist and became a lawyer in 1997 — starting with members of her church who needed assistance filing immigration applications, according to federal court documents.
Mismanaged client funds and a personal injury dispute involving her nephew led to disciplinary actions with the state bar later down the line, and Hackworth temporarily lost her law license.
But prosecutors said she continued to practice — using another lawyer’s name.
Hackworth was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison on March 18 after she pleaded guilty to federal visa fraud charges in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. She surrendered her law license around the same time the charges were announced in the summer of 2021.
“Ms. Hackworth cooperated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout their investigation and fully accepted responsibility for her actions,” her attorney, Woody White, told McClatchy News in a statement. “She respects the Court’s decision and is relieved this chapter in her life is almost over.”
Hackworth is from Wilmington, North Carolina, but previously practiced in Greensboro.
White said in court documents that Hackworth worked as a chemist for a Swiss pharmaceutical company for 12 years before the company offered to put her through law school. Hackworth worked full-time while attending school and received her law degree from North Carolina Central University in 1996, he said.
“As an attorney, Roy did not enjoy as much financial success as she did in her first job, but she found something of more value to her; the opportunity to help people,” White said in sentencing documents.
Hackworth began helping “vulnerable people” at her church with immigration applications and eventually developed an immigration practice, her attorney said.
But in 2012, a disciplinary board with the N.C. State Bar Association determined she had mismanaged a client’s money and suspended her license for four years with the opportunity to stay three of those years if she met certain conditions.
That suspension was changed to five years after Hackworth was caught representing her nephew in a personal injury lawsuit in Alabama while her license was suspended, according to a second disciplinary report.
She reportedly took up the case before her license was suspended and was not paid for her services.
“Although defendant’s actions violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, defendant did not have a selfish or dishonest motive in undertaking the representation,” the disciplinary board said at the time.
The Board of Immigration Appeals also suspended her from practicing immigration matters in 2014.
Some time after she temporarily lost her license, prosecutors said, Hackworth started filing petitions and applications on behalf of clients again with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The government said she impersonated another licensed attorney on those forms.
“The review by (federal investigators) revealed that between 6 and 24 clients were represented by Hackworth with no knowledge that Hackworth was submitting their immigration petitions and application under the name of the other attorney,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Hackworth surrendered her law license in July 2021, according to a disbarment order filed with the N.C. State Bar Association, and she pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud in September.
Her lawyer had asked for a probationary sentence, saying she is “ashamed of the poor example she has set” and is “prepared to accept, with grace and humility, the judgment this Honorable Court enters.”
He pointed to her immediate cooperation with prosecutors and her early willingness to sign a plea agreement. But the judge denied the motion.
Hackworth was ordered to report to prison in 48 days, court documents show.