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Judge asks disbarred lawyer Jessica Miller why she hasn't repaid Pasco clients

Norman Cannella Sr. talks with client Jessica Miller during her sentencing hearing Tuesday. Miller, a former lawyer, pleaded guilty to stealing money from clients.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Norman Cannella Sr. talks with client Jessica Miller during her sentencing hearing Tuesday. Miller, a former lawyer, pleaded guilty to stealing money from clients.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jessica Miller, a disbarred attorney who pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars from her clients, should be given the chance to make good on the wrong she did instead of going to prison, her lawyer argued to a judge Tuesday.

But if that's the case, Circuit Judge Michael Andrews countered, why hasn't she paid anything back yet?

Miller, 32, pleaded guilty last month to stealing about $70,000 by taking money for legal services she never provided and spending funds from two clients' trust accounts. Prosecutors say she 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 the clients footing the bill.

Miller was set to be sentenced Tuesday, but after hearing testimony from both sides Andrews said he will impose a formal sentence on May 7. Miller faces between two and 40 years in prison, unless the judge departs from state guidelines.

Her troubles began in 2006 when clients of her Port Richey firm began complaining she wasn't doing work that was promised and paid for. After she repeatedly failed to show up for a client's guardianship hearings, a judge put her in jail for contempt of court.

The Florida Bar kicked her out, and a criminal investigation began.

In a lengthy hearing Tuesday, the judge pressed Assistant State Attorney Chip Stanton for proof that the spending was at Miller's hands. She has long asserted that it was her former paralegal, Kristen Collins (now Kristen Lausburg), who handled all of the firm's finances and that the fraudulent spending went on without her knowledge.

Lausburg, 32, also pleaded guilty to grand theft charges and is set to be sentenced later this month.

Stanton said Miller did know what was going on, if for no other reason than the checks she was writing to cover payroll and other expenses were bouncing.

"She's in the know about all of this," Stanton said.

The judge also heard from William Morales, who paid Miller to represent him in a divorce. Instead, he said, she avoided his phone calls and canceled court hearings. He eventually learned that the $28,000 he gave her to put in a trust from the sale of his home was gone.

He said he lived for a time in his car and had to rely on the generosity of friends.

"Jessica Miller, thank you for nothing," he said.

Miller never spoke in court. Her husband, Charles Redinger, a Pinellas sheriff's deputy, testified that they kept their finances separate and he never knew about her income or spending.

He told the judge it would be an extreme hardship to care for the couple's two children if his wife went to prison.

Andrews gave little indication what sentence he might impose. Stanton asked only for a "lengthy" prison term.

But the judge said Miller should have been working the past two years to come up with some money for the victims.

"There should have been some (effort) to come up with some sum to show how serious they are," Andrews said. "There are probably a thousand … places where someone who is skilled or unskilled could find a job."

Morales said he was frustrated that the case wasn't settled Tuesday, but said he'll be back for Miller's next hearing.

"I was waiting for a sentence today," he said. "But it's okay. It's coming. I want to see her get handcuffed."

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

Judge asks disbarred lawyer Jessica Miller why she hasn't repaid Pasco clients 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 11:01pm]

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