NEW PORT RICHEY — Kristen Collins Lausberg got her wish in court Friday — to withdraw her plea to charges she stole money from clients of the law firm where she worked as a paralegal.
But now the 32-year-old faces trial on four counts of grand theft, which carry the possibility of up to 40 years in prison if she is convicted.
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews on Friday allowed Lausberg to withdraw her no contest plea after prosecutors agreed, saying they'd rather just try the case rather than risk her plea coming back on appeal.
Prosecutors say that beginning in 2006, Lausberg and her then-boss, former attorney Jessica Miller, 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 their clients footing the bill.
Some of the money was attorneys' fees Miller collected for work she never completed. The bulk of it was money she and Lausberg were alleged to have spent from two clients' trust accounts, treating the protected accounts like ATMs.
Both women were arrested, and Lausberg agreed to cooperate by providing evidence against Miller.
In exchange for her cooperation, Lausberg said prosecutors promised she would be spared prison time. Her attorney worked out a deal with the state that would have put her on house arrest, with some weekends in jail, as she continued to pay back the more than $70,000 bilked from clients.
But Andrews, who sentenced Miller to more than four years in prison for the thefts, called the deal Lausberg got too good. He thought she deserved prison time, too.
That set off Lausberg's relentless effort to withdraw her plea. She insisted that the promise of no prison was in place before she pleaded.
She told Andrews she would call witnesses who would back up her story. But that became moot Friday when the state simply agreed to her request.
"Why not try the case," Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis said. "We have a case that we built before she was arrested."
Miller has called Lausberg the mastermind of the scheme. When Miller graduated from Stetson law school, she said she saw a bulletin board job posting Lausberg put up seeking an attorney for the Port Richey firm where she was working. Miller said Lausberg handled all the firm's accounts as she worked herself ragged on a meager salary.
And she said that when the free-spending outings were going on, Miller was always a guest of Lausberg and her friends and family.
Lausberg also has a prior record: in 2005, she pleaded guilty to forgery and uttering a forged instrument after she was accused of forging the signature of a circuit judge.
Miller, 32, pleaded guilty in March and later asked a judge to consider a shorter sentence but was denied. Her new attorney, Greg Showers, said Friday that he plans to look into the new development in Lausberg's case.
"I will be reviewing it to see if it does have any effect on Ms. Miller," he said.
Lausberg said she was advised not to comment to the Times because her case is now pending again.
Andrews, who has warned Lausberg about the risk of going to trial in a case in which she has provided evidence to the state, gave her one last out Friday: a sentence at the minimum of state guidelines for 23 months in prison.
She wasn't interested.
So the judge told her, "Whatever the worst is, you should assume it."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.