NEW PORT RICHEY — A paralegal and her attorney boss spent about $70,000 of clients' money on shopping sprees, lavish lunches and vacations. They got caught. Each blamed the other for being primarily responsible.
Yet, five years later, only the attorney is in prison. The paralegal will spend 18 months on house arrest and 10 years on probation, in addition to being forced to pay back a fund that reimbursed the victims.
Kristen Collins Lausburg, 33, negotiated a plea deal last week that will force her to remain at home for a year and a half. Her decade of probation cannot end early.
Her ex-boss and former best friend, Jessica Miller, 33, who was disbarred as a result of the case, was sentenced in May 2010 to more than four years in prison for her role in the scheme, which drained the accounts of two clients and forced one to lose his home and sleep in a car.
"She's the lawyer," said Norman Cannella Sr., Miller's former attorney. "She had a greater responsibility." Cannella said Miller's sentence was within state guidelines and because it was a plea, he sees Miller as having little choice but to serve her sentence.
"I don't know what there is you could appeal," he said.
Lausburg's attorneys did not return calls for comment on the sentence that Circuit Judge Stanley Miller handed down Friday.
The deal was negotiated after one victim, Stanley McEwen, who had wanted Lausburg to go to prison, had a change of heart, according to Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis. McEwen got repaid at least some by the Florida Bar, but he wanted to make sure the fund was reimbursed. Lausburg has paid $5,000 toward McEwen's losses and has to pay another $2,500 by Feb. 6.
She will be on the hook for additional funds to the Florida Bar for the other victims.
Miller's and Lausburg's troubles began in 2006 when clients of Miller's Port Richey firm began complaining Miller 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 uncovered sprees at Macy's, Dillard's, Publix, tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game and a vacation for staffers to a South Carolina resort — all paid for using clients' funds.
But Miller asserted that it was her former paralegal, Lausburg, who handled all of the firm's finances and that the fraudulent spending went on without her knowledge.
During a court hearing last year, victim William Morales said he 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.
Miller's attorney argued then that she should not go to prison because she planned to repay the money. But if that was the case, Circuit Judge Michael Andrews wondered at the time, why hadn't she already done so?
A month later, Miller showed up in court with $250 — proceeds from a yard sale — and ended up with the four-year sentence.
Five months into her sentence, she asked another judge to shorten it and showed up in court with $20,000. The judge denied her request.
However, Lausburg showed up to her first plea hearing in May 2010 with $20,000 toward restitution, prompting prosecutors to offer the deal. She pleaded no contest to grand theft and was prepared to testify against Miller in exchange for house arrest and weekends in jail.
Andrews rejected that deal as too lenient.
He also noted that Lausburg had been implicated in 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 court judge. At that May 2010 hearing, Andrews said Lausburg was "at least as culpable if not more culpable than Ms. Miller."
Times staff writer Erin Sullivan contributed to this report.