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Former Port Richey lawyer's aide on hot seat

NEW PORT RICHEY — Chalk up another arrest to ex-lawyer Jessica Miller's defunct law firm.

Former paralegal and office manager Kristen Collins turned herself in Wednesday morning to the West Pasco Judicial Center on a writ of bodily attachment — a warrant to physically hold her for contempt of court.

The 29-year-old mother of three, who was booked under her maiden name of Kristen Masters, skipped a subpoena to appear as a witness at a Feb. 25 hearing on Miller's own contempt of court charge.

At that hearing, Miller's attorney accused the absent Collins of treating the firm's accounts like an ATM and taking more than $70,000 in client money.

Miller attorney Steve Bartlett said Collins spent the money on personal vehicles and private school tuition. But Collins has denied the allegations, and said Miller paid her salary by paying her bills with the firm's accounts.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office hasn't determined what happened to the funds. Its criminal investigation into the troubled law firm is still ongoing — and more money might yet be missing. The state is still auditing the books.

Collins' attorney told Circuit Judge Walter "Skip" Schafer Jr. that his client wouldn't miss court again.

"We submit that there is no substantial fear that the witness will not appear again," attorney Bruce Przepis said Wednesday.

"Well, she didn't appear last time," the judge said.

Nor was the judge impressed with her criminal history: Collins was sentenced to probation in 2005 for forging the signatures of a Pasco judge and a Pinellas attorney.

Schafer set bail at $50,000. Collins, in handcuffs, was led out of the courtroom by bailiffs to be booked into the county jail in Land O'Lakes.

Collins was still there late Wednesday, though Przepis said he expected his client to post bail. If she skips another court date — either for Miller's legal problems or her own — Collins will forfeit that bail.

Turning herself in was Collins' decision, her attorney said. "She wanted to do the right thing," Przepis said, "and she's done that."

Miller is the embattled Port Richey civil lawyer who gave up her law license in January after the Florida Bar investigated her for poor billing practices and shoddy legal work — or in many cases, doing no work.

She was jailed twice in a five-month span for disobeying the court — the second time fleeing the state to avoid a court hearing. That's what the February contempt hearing was about. Her next hearing is April 21.

After the Feb. 25 hearing, Collins told the Times she wasn't properly served with a subpoena to appear.

But she was overruled by two judges who decided she was, in fact, properly served. It's not the first time Collins' legal acumen has come under fire.

Like her old boss, Collins has also come under scrutiny by the Florida Bar. Three times in the past nine years, the Bar has investigated Collins for the unlicensed practice of law.

In 2005, she signed an agreement that she would never again pretend to be a lawyer. But now the Bar is investigating new allegations that she did it again.

If those allegations are substantiated, the Florida Bar said, Collins could be criminally prosecuted for the unlicensed practice of law.

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

Former Port Richey lawyer's aide on hot seat 03/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 2:32pm]
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