NEW ORLEANS — Offering a tearful apology, a former public defender in New Orleans pleaded guilty Friday to charges that she practiced law without a license by faking that she had passed a required exam.

Ashley Crawford, 31, pleaded guilty as charged to three felonies – payroll fraud, injuring public records and filing false records – and one misdemeanor, practicing law without a license.

Crawford’s plea agreement includes paying $43,000 in restitution and two years probation. The restitution will pay back the salary and benefits she received working as a public defender for nearly a year.

Her attorney, Billy Sothern, said that her “gravest punishment” is her loss of the possibility of ever practicing law again.

Crawford dreamed of being a public defender and “her motivation was simply to be among those attorneys,” Sothern said.

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Crawford was in tears at the sentencing, admitting that she made a “horrible mistake” by falsifying records to fake being a credentialed attorney.

“I held myself out to be an attorney and that was not the case,” she said.

Ad Hoc Judge Jerome Winsberg said while he had sympathy for Crawford’s personal plight, her crime was not “victimless.”

“The criminal justice system itself may be the greatest victim,” Winsberg said. “What you did was wrong and you did it knowingly.”

More than a dozen former public defender’s office colleague packed the courtroom in support of Crawford, forming a line to offer tearful hugs after the hearing.

An investigation into Crawford’s credentials revealed that she allegedly presented a string of falsified documents and exam scores to get hired as a public defender in October 2018.

In an affidavit, Louisiana Bureau of Investigation Agent Marc Amos stated that Crawford used another attorney’s bar roll number while filing documents in more than 100 cases at criminal court.

After graduating from Loyola Law School in 2016, Crawford passed the Louisiana Bar Exam with a score of 75 percent out of a minimum required 70 percent. But she failed another required test, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, scoring 75 out of a required 80, Amos wrote.