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Aide could testify against Pasco lawyer accused of stealing thousands from clients

NEW PORT RICHEY — Kristen Collins, the former paralegal of disbarred lawyer Jessica Miller, has pleaded no contest to four charges of grand theft and could be called to testify against her former boss.

Collins, 31, and Miller, 32, were accused of stealing more than $72,000 from four clients of Miller's Port Richey firm. Authorities say some of the money came from trust accounts; some was paid to Miller for services she never provided.

It disappeared on shopping trips to Macy's, Dillard's, Walmart and Publix, sheriff's investigators said. One Christmas, as a bonus for her employees and their families, Miller took them on a vacation to a South Carolina resort. Her clients footed the bill, the investigators said.

Witnesses told detectives that Collins, in lieu of a paycheck, paid her personal bills out of the law firm's operating account.

Collins and Miller blamed each other. In her arrest affidavit, Miller told investigators that in three years of owning her law firm, she never filed the company's taxes, never kept payroll records and never checked the bank account balances — neither the operating nor trust accounts. That was left to Collins.

But under Florida Bar rules, it is the lawyer alone who is responsible for client funds kept in trust accounts.

Miller's troubles began in 2007, when several clients complained she hadn't provided services after being paid. Those problems multiplied when Pasco County circuit judges demanded answers and Miller, in effect, ignored them.

She was handcuffed and led away in open court in August 2007 after a judge found her in contempt for missing three months of guardianship hearings. Miller paid $1,000 and got out of jail two hours later.

The Florida Bar began investigating. Miller blamed her clients, saying they failed to turn over documents or give her working phone numbers. She eventually reached an agreement with the Bar to give up her law license.

Collins also went to jail briefly last year on a contempt of court charge. She had been investigated by the Bar three times before that for unlicensed practice of law. In 2005, she was sentenced to probation for forging the signatures of a Pasco judge and a Pinellas lawyer.

Collins signed an agreement with the Bar that she would never again pretend to be a lawyer.

She pleaded directly to Circuit Judge Michael Andrews on the grand theft charges, meaning she has no deal worked out with prosecutors on a sentence. State guidelines call for about two years in prison, with a maximum of 40 years.

Miller also faces up to 40 years.

Assistant State Attorney Chip Stanton said the victims have received most of their money back through a compensation fund. He plans to seek restitution to have Miller, if she is convicted, and Collins pay the clients the rest of their money and then replenish the fund.

"There's really no question here: All of the client money was spent," Stanton said.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Aide could testify against Pasco lawyer accused of stealing thousands from clients 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 9:10pm]
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