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Fingers point, denials fly over law practice's missing money

BRENDAN FITTERER   |   Times
Jessica Miller was in court Monday to defend herself for failing to hand over $28,000 in client money that is missing from her defunct law firm’s accounts. Her lawyer, Steve Bartlett, is at right.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times Jessica Miller was in court Monday to defend herself for failing to hand over $28,000 in client money that is missing from her defunct law firm’s accounts. Her lawyer, Steve Bartlett, is at right.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Technically, the issue for former attorney Jessica Miller in court on Monday was whether she should be held in contempt for disobeying a judge's commands.

But the real issue looming for Miller and anyone connected to her old law office is the criminal investigation into what happened to more than $70,000 in client money missing from her shuttered practice.

That may best explain the furious finger-pointing between the ex-lawyer and her ex-office manager ignited by Monday's hearing.

Miller has denied taking the money, and her lawyer said last week they would "name names"

in court.

Attorney Steve Bartlett did just that, firing the first salvo in open court: He said Kristen Collins, Miller's former office manager and paralegal, turned the firm's accounts into her personal ATM.

"Your honor, it's our belief that (Collins) stole the money," Bartlett told the court.

Bartlett said Collins used client money for such things as payments on vehicles like her Mercedes-Benz and to pay for her kids' private school tuition.

The office manager "had sole control" of the law practice's accounts, Bartlett said.

Minutes after the hearing, Collins called the St. Petersburg Times and denied the allegations.

"There's no way I can steal her money when I didn't have access to it," Collins said.

She said Miller controlled those accounts. But Collins didn't deny that the firm paid her bills. She said that's how Miller wanted to pay her for her services as office manager and paralegal.

She said Miller was trying to deflect blame over the missing money.

"I think she'll try to throw anybody under the bus," Collins said. "But the only person who can have access to a trust account is an attorney."

That is correct. Under Florida Bar rules, attorneys are solely responsible for trust accounts — not paralegals, not office managers. It was just one of many Florida Bar allegations that led Miller to give up her law license last month.

But Collins' legal career has also run afoul of the Bar and Florida's courts. Collins, also known as Kristen Masters, has twice in the past decade been in trouble with the Bar for the unlicensed practice of law. In 2005 she pleaded guilty to forging a judge's signature and was sentenced to probation.

Both Miller and Collins said they have no idea what happened to the money — though authorities say the money has been missing for months.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office investigation into the missing funds is not yet complete and no arrests have been made.

Miller's lawyer also blamed the former office manager for the incident that landed Miller in court Monday: failing to obey a judge's order last year to hand over $28,155 she was supposed to be holding for a client.

Not only did Miller disobey the judge, but she took an out-of-state vacation in December on the day she was to be in court to explain herself.

A judge issued a warrant for her arrest. Miller returned to Florida and turned herself in to the jail.

Miller's explanation: Collins told her that a "bank glitch" held up the transfer, and the paralegal told the lawyer she didn't have to go to court to explain herself.

Collins denied this as well.

Bartlett said he tried to subpoena Collins as a witness but she didn't show up for court Monday. He said Collins ran from his process server and hid in her home — something Collins also denied.

Miller's attorney said she couldn't defend herself from the contempt charge without Collins as a witness. So the judge continued the hearing until Collins does show up.

Collins said she wasn't served properly — although she was overruled on that by Senior Judge Robert Beach. He ordered Collins to appear before the court at a later unscheduled date to explain why she shouldn't be held in contempt for disobeying the court.

Not only is that the same thing Miller is in trouble for, but last year she was the one accused of hiding from process servers.

That was too much for William Morales, the ex-client who wants his $28,000 back so he can finish his divorce. Collins' absence reminded him of when Miller skipped out on his court hearings last year.

"Another delay, another cancellation," he said, "that's Jessica Miller's practice.

"It's one's word against the other. They're going to keep fighting until one of them fesses up, which none of them will."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Fingers point, denials fly over law practice's missing money 02/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 9:30am]
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