NEW PORT RICHEY — It's been nearly a year since former paralegal Kristen Collins Lausburg pleaded guilty to charges she and her former boss, attorney Jessica Miller, drained their clients' accounts.
In a two-hour sentencing hearing Friday afternoon, 32-year-old Lausburg sobbed and begged Circuit Judge Michael Andrews to not send her to prison.
And he didn't.
Andrews postponed sentencing until Dec. 17 so Lausburg can get her affairs in order, but said he's inclined to give her about 23 months in prison, which is less than the 4 1/2 year sentence Miller is serving.
If Lausburg gets in trouble or doesn't show up for her next hearing, Andrews said he would give her the maximum: 40 years in prison.
Lausburg and Miller, also 32, were accused of stealing more than $72,000 from four clients of Miller's Port Richey firm. Authorities say some of the money came from trust accounts; some was paid to Miller for services she never provided.
The duo spent the money on shopping trips to Macy's, Dillard's, Victoria's Secret, Walmart, Sears and Publix, investigators said, and paid for a vacation to a South Carolina resort for the firm's employees and their families.
Miller and Lausburg — who was investigated by the Florida Bar three times for the unlicensed practice of law — blamed each other. Miller was disbarred and, like Lausburg, pleaded guilty to four counts of grant theft.
The swindled clients have been mostly repaid out of a fund administered by the Florida Bar, but Miller and Lausburg have to repay the money to the Bar. Before her sentencing, Miller brought the judge $250 she got from holding a yard sale. In October — five months into her prison sentence — she brought $20,000 for restitution and asked Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa to reduce her sentence. Siracusa denied the request but gave her attorney and the prosecutor two weeks to confer with Miller's victims to decide whether the offer of money was worth her getting out early. Miller didn't contact the victims.
Lausburg, who was prepared to testify against Miller at trial before Miller took a plea deal, also brought $20,000 in restitution. She told Andrews on Friday that the State Attorney's Office lied to her and said if she cooperated, she would get a 45-day jail sentence, to be served on weekends, and some probation. Lausburg said that in the weeks before Miller's trial date she worked 12- to 14-hour days at the State Attorney's Office, going through boxes of files to help prosecutors build their case.
"I did what they wanted me to do," Lausburg said. "Now they've taken back everything they've promised me."
Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis said Lausburg did cooperate with them, but that her work did not mean she didn't deserve prison time, which is what the victims wanted.
"We didn't need her to prove the case against Jessica Miller," Halkitis said. "The case was strong enough itself."
Lausburg is a mother of four children and said her husband doesn't make enough money to support the family without her. She begged to continue working and to serve jail on weekends. She said she would be in jail every weekend for five years if that's what Andrews wanted.
"I am willing to do anything to pay these people back," Lausburg said. "I will do whatever it takes to make them whole."
But victims who spoke in court said they suffered greatly. William Morales hired Miller as his divorce attorney and lost $28,000 he got from selling his house. Although the 50-year-old has been paid back through the Bar's fund, it took time. And in the years without that money, he got behind on bills and had a car repossessed. He slept in another car and bounced from house to house.
"You have no clue what I went through," Morales said an in interview before the hearing. "It was embarrassing and humiliating."
Lausburg and her family sobbed a few feet from Morales. He wasn't moved.
"I want her to do the same amount of time as Jessica," Morales said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.