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Testimony tracks law firm's depleted funds

For months the Pasco County Sheriff's Office has investigated the disappearance of tens of thousands of dollars from an infamous Port Richey law firm.

The latest tally: More than $200,000 — money that belonged to the clients of the now-defunct firm — is all gone.

Who did it? The criminal investigation is still going. No one has been arrested.

But last month in court, two women testified that they had access to the firm's pilfered bank accounts.

One was disgraced ex-attorney Jessica Miller.

The other was her ex-paralegal, ex-office manager and ex-best friend Kristen Collins.

Miller took the stand last month to defend herself against a charge that she disobeyed a judge's order to appear in court. She blamed Collins. Collins took the stand to defend herself.

That may have been a mistake for them both.

By defending themselves, Miller and Collins also linked themselves to the bank accounts under investigation — and everything they said in open court is fair game for the authorities.

They also gave a glimpse into how their dysfunctional law firm did — or rather, didn't — work.

"Let's just say this doesn't look good," said Assistant State Attorney Mary Handsel. "The state is still investigating. But that was very enlightening testimony."

• • •

A judge found Miller guilty June 23 of indirect criminal contempt of court. She sits in the county jail, awaiting sentencing on Tuesday. She faces up to six months in the same jail.

Miller's defense at the contempt trial was, basically, that she was a bad lawyer. She said she had no idea how things worked or what went on at the firm. She said she relied on Collins for everything: legal advice, business practices, even control of their bank accounts.

That's why, Miller argued, she shouldn't have been blamed when a judge's November order to return $28,000 to a client went ignored. Miller testified that her paralegal was supposed to take care of that.

Miller's defense attorney in the contempt trial, Steve Bartlett, even had a former employee testify that Miller didn't run the law office — Collins did.

"She called herself many things," Virginia Lampmann, a former employee of the firm, testified about Collins. "Project manager, legal director, paralegal."

A matter of control

But Lampmann was not the ideal defense witness.

That's because Lampmann linked Miller to the firm's trust account: She said Miller twice paid her salary from it.

In the world of lawyers, trust accounts are sacred.

That's where lawyers store their clients' funds. They can keep client retainers in there, or hold money for a client. The $28,000 that disappeared was from a client's home sale that was supposed to be in Miller's trust account.

Florida Bar rules say that only lawyers can control trust accounts. Lawyers are also required to regularly track and reconcile trust accounts.

But Miller's defense in the contempt case, for everything, is that she had nothing to do with the firm's trust account.

Until, that is, Miller called Lampmann to the stand.

"So clearly Ms. Miller had access to the trust account checks?" asked Handsel, who prosecuted the contempt case.

"Yes," Lampmann said.

Lawyers are allowed to take money from trust accounts if they have rendered services — say, they can take payment from a client's retainer.

So Miller could defend paying Lampmann's salary out of a trust account by saying she used a portion of the client's money she earned as an attorney.

But to do that, a lawyer has to keep track of how much money in the trust account belongs to the client and how much belongs to the lawyer.

Miller testified in court that she didn't keep track of the trust account.

A taxing issue, too

Like Miller, Collins has run afoul of the law and the Bar.

Collins was sentenced to probation in 2005 for forging the signatures of a Pasco judge and a Pinellas attorney. Twice in nine years the Bar found she engaged in the unlicensed practice of law. She's now under investigation on charges that she did it again.

Miller and her lawyer have publicly, repeatedly, blamed Collins for cleaning out the firm.

They accused the paralegal of using the firm's accounts to pay for her children's schooling, her Mercedes, even her bills.

Collins said she isn't to blame for the missing money. But she doesn't deny paying her bills with firm checks. That's how Miller paid her salary, she said.

"I wasn't paid a paycheck," Collins testified back in June. "That's how Jessica chose to pay me so she didn't have to match my federal taxes with the IRS at the end of the year."

(The prosecutor plans to send a transcript of the trial to the IRS and state agencies to see what, if any, tax laws may have been broken.)

Collins testified she had access to the firm's accounts, including the trust account. The paralegal said the firm had to rely on the trust account to get by.

"We had a lot of problems with bounced checks," Collins testified. "So we had to use trust account checks to pay everybody."

No accounting for it

Miller's trust account was just about empty when the client's $28,000 was deposited in 2006.

And it was soon empty again.

"The most egregious thing to me is when she deposited the $28,000 check into the account, she had 77 cents in there," said Handsel, "and within two months she had zero dollars in that account."

So in court, both women linked themselves to the firm's depleted accounts. But who was supposed to be keeping the books?

"The books, did anyone keep track of them with a ledger?" Miller's attorney, Bartlett, asked his client.

"Well there really wasn't a ledger," Miller said.

"So there was no accounting done, on paper, on a ledger, saying when the checks came in?" Bartlett asked the paralegal.

"Not to my knowledge," Collins said.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

Testimony tracks law firm's depleted funds 07/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 4:22pm]
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