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Missing money lands troubled lawyer Jessica Miller back in Pasco jail

Disbarred attorney Jessica Miller, shown in a July 13 court appearance, was arrested Friday on four counts of grand theft. Investigators say she spent money intended for clients.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times (2008)

Disbarred attorney Jessica Miller, shown in a July 13 court appearance, was arrested Friday on four counts of grand theft. Investigators say she spent money intended for clients.

PORT RICHEY — Two years after clients' money started disappearing from Jessica Miller's law firm, authorities now know where it went.

To Macy's, Dillards and Victoria's Secret.

To Bealls, Wal-Mart, Sears and Publix.

It went, according to Pasco County Sheriff's Office reports, to pay for vacations at Discovery Cove in Orlando and Tybrisa Beach Resort in Georgia. It paid for a Christmas bonus trip for Miller's employees and their families.

Miller, a 31-year-old disbarred attorney, was arrested Friday on four felony counts of grand theft, accused of stealing her clients' money — some of it from trust accounts, some of it paid to her for services she never provided.

Her former paralegal, Kristen Collins, 30, was arrested on the same charges.

Total losses: $72,155, records show.

"My heart bleeds for these people who are out of money," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis. "It is unconscionable."

• • •

Miller first ran into trouble in 2007 with a smattering of complaints from clients, who said she hadn't provided any services even though she had been paid. Those problems multiplied when Pasco circuit judges demanded answers and Miller, in effect, ignored them.

She was handcuffed and led away in open court in August 2007 after a judge found her in contempt for missing three months of guardianship hearings. Miller paid $1,000 and got out of jail two hours later.

The Florida Bar began investigating. Miller blamed her clients, saying they failed to turn over documents or give her working phone numbers.

By the end of 2007, Miller was nowhere to be found. Money she was supposed to be holding in escrow for clients was missing, too.

Collins told the Times then that Miller was on a monthlong medical leave.

Soon, Miller's accounts were frozen, she was stripped of her court cases and criminal authorities were investigating the missing money.

She eventually reached an agreement with the Bar to give up her law license.

Collins also went to jail briefly last year on a contempt of court charge. According to her arrest report, Miller allowed Collins to pay all of her own bills out of the firm's accounts instead of paying her a salary. In court testimony, Miller has blamed Collins for the money going missing, saying it was Collins who kept the books and signed the checks.

The legal assistant has her own history of legal troubles. The Bar has investigated Collins three times in the past nine years for the unlicensed practice of law. In 2005, Collins was sentenced to probation for forging the signatures of a Pasco judge and a Pinellas attorney.

Collins also signed an agreement with the Bar that she would never again pretend to be a lawyer. But the Bar on Friday accused Collins of violating that agreement. It may start disciplinary proceedings.

• • •

In her arrest affidavit, Miller told investigators that in three years of owning her law firm, she never filed taxes, never kept payroll records and never checked her bank account balances — neither the operating or trust accounts.

But under the Bar's rules, it is the lawyer alone who is responsible for client funds kept in trust accounts.

"There just is no higher duty under the Florida Bar," said former prosecutor J. Larry Hart, who has spent 24 years in private practice. "These monies are not lightly referred to as trust funds.

"On a personal level, if (the allegations) are true, it's highly embarrassing to the profession."

Miller, a mother of three who lives in Holiday, was released from jail Friday evening after posting $20,000 bail. She could not be reached for comment. Collins, of Hudson, remained in custody.

Miller and Collins face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

William Morales, who hired Miller in 2006 to represent him in a divorce, is out some $28,000. It was the proceeds from a home sale — "all I had left," Morales said Friday.

He gave Miller the money to hold in trust until the divorce was settled, but according to affidavits, she and Collins funneled it into the firm's operating accounts until the balance was depleted to 77 cents.

He learned of the arrests when contacted by a reporter.

His reaction: "Oh my God, thank you. Them people done ruined my whole life."

Morales said he has appealed to the Bar, which has a special fund to reimburse victims like him.

He doesn't know how much money, if any, he'll recoup.

He has hired another attorney.

His divorce still isn't final.

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

Missing money lands troubled lawyer Jessica Miller back in Pasco jail 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 8:44pm]
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