NEW PORT RICHEY — Facing a trial in which prosecutors vowed to show that her clients' money paid for steak dinners, happy hours and resort vacations, disbarred attorney Jessica Miller avoided the spectacle and pleaded guilty Friday to grand theft charges that could send her to prison.
The plea, which came with no sentencing deal from prosecutors, capped a three-year legal scandal that began with complaints from clients of her Port Richey law firm who said she took their money but did no work. In August 2007, after missing three months of guardianship hearings, she went to jail for 43 days for contempt of court.
The Florida Bar investigated and ultimately kicked her out.
Then came the criminal charges.
Miller, 32, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of second-degree grand theft and two counts of third-degree grand theft. She is accused of taking about $3,900 for legal services she never provided, as well as funneling some $65,000 from the trust funds of two divorce clients into her firm's operating account.
The day she learns her fate will be April 6, when she will be sentenced by Circuit Judge Michael Andrews.
Guidelines call for a sentence of just less than two years in prison, but Miller faces up to 40 years. Prosecutor Chip Stanton plans to seek full restitution for the victims.
He said two of Miller's victims plan to speak at her sentencing. The others will write letters that Stanton will read to the judge.
Arrested along with Miller last year was Kristen Collins, now Kristen Lausburg, Miller's paralegal and best friend.
Miller, a married mother of three, told investigators that in three years of owning the law firm, she left all of the financial responsibility to Lausburg — filing taxes, maintaining the payroll and minding the bank accounts, including trust accounts.
But under the Florida Bar's rules, it is the lawyer alone who is responsible for client funds kept in trust accounts.
Lausburg's arrest report said Miller allowed Lausburg to pay all of her own bills out of the firm's accounts instead of paying her a salary.
But beyond just questionable bookkeeping, prosecutors say Miller and Lausburg spent money that wasn't theirs. With client funds, investigative records say, the two went on shopping trips to Macy's, Dillard's, Walmart and Publix. 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, investigators said.
Lausburg, 31, also faces up to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to four counts of grand theft last month. She didn't have a negotiated plea with prosecutors either, but had agreed to testify against Miller in the trial that was set to begin Monday.
She'll be sentenced March 25.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.