NEW PORT RICHEY — Circuit Judge Michael Andrews gave Jessica Miller a hint last month about how the disbarred attorney might help herself when she is sentenced for stealing some $70,000 from her clients:
Show up Friday with a substantial chunk of the money she still owes.
"It really goes a long way in these types of cases to have some money at sentencing," Andrews said back on April 6.
So Friday, as Miller's long-delayed sentencing finally arrived, her lawyer announced she had amassed a total of $250, the proceeds of a recent garage sale.
And Andrews announced his decision: Miller, 32, will spend the next 4 1/2 years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation in which she must repay $69,156.
"It wasn't like you made a mistake. It wasn't like you didn't know," the judge said. "It wasn't like someone lied to you. You were a full participant."
Prosecutors say that beginning in 2006, Miller and her former paralegal spent lavishly on meals and happy hours, indulged in shopping trips to Dillard's and Victoria's Secret, and took their families on vacations, all with their clients footing the bill. Some of the money was attorneys' fees Miller collected for work she never performed. The bulk of it was money she and Kristen Collins Lausburg were alleged to have spent from two clients' trust accounts.
The clients have mostly been repaid out of a special fund administered by the Florida Bar, but Miller and Lausburg are still on the hook to repay that fund.
Miller, who pleaded guilty last month to four counts of grand theft, has long blamed Lausburg for the criminal spending, saying her paralegal handled all the firm's finances and Miller never knew the status of the accounts.
On Friday, she didn't speak at all of Lausburg or admit to stealing any money, saying only that she "failed to protect those funds from being taken."
"I am deeply apologetic to the court, to the profession as well as my former colleagues for this entire issue, situation, whatever you want to call it," Miller said. "I'm very, very sorry for the publicity this has brought on the profession.
"I had a responsibility to protect my clients … and I failed to do so."
She told the judge she had spent the past weeks feverishly applying for jobs so she could earn money to pay back the restitution. But it seemed like too little, too late to the judge who had questioned why in the two years since her arrest she never paid back a cent.
"Your actions were reckless, and you acted with impunity and without regard for your clients. They are entitled to justice," Andrews said. "You knew better or you should have known better. You were in charge of your law firm."
He said he felt remorse for the impact of the prison sentence on Miller's family. She is married with two young children. Her husband, Charles Redinger, is a Pinellas sheriff's deputy.
After she was fingerprinted and handcuffed, Miller sat in the jury box, her lips pursed, slowly shaking her head.
Lausburg has also pleaded guilty to grand theft; she is set to be sentenced May 21.
Once Miller's clients began complaining in 2007 that she wasn't doing work that was promised and paid for, her problems only worsened. She repeatedly failed to show up for a client's guardianship hearings, and a judge put her in jail for contempt of court.
The Florida Bar eventually kicked her out, and a criminal investigation began.
William Morales, who saw his trust account drained from $28,000 to zero under Miller's watch, described his own hardships to the judge last month.
He had to sleep on friends' couches and in his car while his divorce case dragged on and his financial situation deteriorated. Meanwhile, Miller, he said, avoided his phone calls and sent him angry letters once he reported her to the bar.
On Friday, Morales said he was satisfied with her sentence and has slowly put his life back together.
It took five years, but his divorce was eventually finalized.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.