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Ex-attorney seeks new sentence in theft of clients' money

Former attorney Jessica Miller looks at family members in the courtroom Wednesday after a judge in New Port Richey turned down her request for a shorter sentence.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Former attorney Jessica Miller looks at family members in the courtroom Wednesday after a judge in New Port Richey turned down her request for a shorter sentence.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jessica Miller, a former attorney who stole and spent thousands of dollars of her clients' money, repaid just $250 of the debt before a judge sent her to prison.

On Wednesday, five months into her four-year sentence, Miller returned to court to ask another judge to reconsider her sentence.

This time, she had $20,000 to offer toward restitution.

After a lengthy hearing that included emotional testimony from Miller's family, Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa denied Miller's request but gave her attorney and the prosecutor two weeks to confer with Miller's victims to decide whether the offer of money was worth her getting out of prison earlier.

The judge made no promises, though.

Prosecutors say that beginning in 2006, Miller, now 32, and her former paralegal used Miller's firm's operating account to pay for cocktails and fancy lunches, shopping sprees, Tampa Bay Rays tickets and vacations for themselves and their families. 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 fund administered by the Florida Bar, but not completely. And Miller and Lausburg are still on the hook to repay that fund.

Miller pleaded guilty earlier this year to four counts of grand theft. The married mother of two gave up her law license and fell into financial ruin as a result of the case.

She has long blamed Lausburg for the reckless spending, saying her paralegal handled all the firm's finances and Miller never knew the status of the accounts.

She repeated that claim Wednesday while acknowledging she was the one ultimately responsible.

"I gave somebody that responsibility that I should have taken," she told the judge.

But prosecutors said that Miller had been fairly warned. When complaints about her first began trickling into the Florida Bar, investigators there had an informal meeting with her to counsel her about the importance of careful billing and financial oversight.

She assured them, Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls said, that she was reviewing the billing and was in control of the firm.

Miller said that when she discovered money missing in late 2007, she spent a month collecting bank records and invoices and then turned them over to law enforcement.

But it was Lausburg, 32, who got credit for helping prosecutors. She was prepared to testify against Miller at trial and herself brought $20,000 to pay toward the nearly $70,000 owed in restitution between the two of them.

In return, prosecutors agreed to give Lausburg a generous sentence by comparison: house arrest and weekends in jail, followed by probation.

But the deal didn't satisfy Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, the original judge in both cases. He also noted that Lausburg has been implicated in similar crimes before.

In 2005, she pleaded guilty to forgery and uttering a forged instrument after she was accused of forging the signature of a circuit judge.

Lausburg is set to be sentenced later this month.

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

Ex-attorney seeks new sentence in theft of clients' money 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 9:58pm]

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