'Dance Moms' TV star faces sentencing in federal court
January 19, 2017 11:45 PM
Abigale Miller, the star of television's "Dance Moms" who has been convicted of trying to hide assets from bankruptcy court, says she shouldn't be sentenced to federal prison.
By Torsten Ove / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Dance Moms” TV star Abby Lee Miller, convicted of hiding assets from bankruptcy court and sneaking cash into the U.S. to conceal it, says she shouldn’t go to federal prison.
Ms. Miller, whose real name is Abigale Miller, is asking U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti for probation.
But the government says she has shown no respect for the law — at one point she sent an email to her accountant using a vulgar term in referring to the bankruptcy judge handling her case — and deserves the two years to 30 months called for by federal sentencing guidelines.
Ms. Miller’s sentencing will start today. A second day has been set aside to finish it on Feb. 24. The unusual format was necessary because the sentencing is likely to be contentious enough to require two days and the judge also is handling the ongoing drug trial of former Pittsburgh Steelers doctor Richard Rydze.
Ms. Miller became a federal felon in June when she pleaded guilty to concealing assets from her TV show from federal bankruptcy court in Pittsburgh. She also admitted that she sneaked cash into the country in plastic bags stuffed into luggage after returning from dance trips in Australia.
In pre-sentencing filings, Ms. Miller gave an accounting of her past, saying her family-run Penn Hills dance studio was in financial trouble in the late 2000s because of her lack of financial knowledge and a drop in enrollment caused by the global economic crisis and the decline of Penn Hills.
She declared bankruptcy in 2010.
But when her reality TV show took off in 2011, she and her lawyer said, she suddenly became a star and didn’t know how to handle the fame that it brought. She soon became overwhelmed.
“She was simply ill-equipped to manage her good fortune,” wrote attorney Brandon Verdream.
He said she always intended to pay off her creditors at 100 percent and has admitted that what she did was wrong.
“It was a foolish decision to skirt the law and she has accepted a felony conviction as the wages of her frivolity,” Mr. Verdream wrote.
He and Ms. Miller, who had been splitting time among homes in California, Florida and Penn Hills, also pointed to all of the people she has helped over the years as one reason she should not be jailed, including the 40-some dancers she has trained who went on to professional careers on Broadway and elsewhere.
Mr. Verdream presented many letters on her behalf and asked Judge Conti to impose a “non-custodial” sentence.
But federal prosecutors say the guidelines don’t allow for probation and Ms. Miller’s calculated conduct warrants time behind bars.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Melucci said that Ms. Miller had numerous opportunities during her bankruptcy to set the record straight about her assets, yet chose to lie repeatedly.
Among his exhibits are emails and texts she sent showing her contempt for the court and her intent to hide income even after warnings. After being dressed down by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti in February 2013, for example, she sent an email to her accountant describing the judge using a derogatory term and complaining that he hated her because he was making her pay all of her creditors back at once.
Judge Agresti showed plenty of irritation at Ms. Miller as her schemes became apparent, Mr. Melucci said. At one hearing in 2012, he found out she hadn’t revealed her income from 2012 and had also struck TV show contracts without disclosing them in an amended bankruptcy plan. After she complained that she didn’t even know about the contracts, he’d had enough.
“And she can shake her head and protest all she wants and go through her TV face, that’s not going to affect me, ma’am, and I’d prefer you stop it, OK?” the judge told her. “Let’s be a little stoic here. These are very serious problems you have, and a failure to disclose.”
Mr. Melucci also said her attempt to transport cash into the U.S. shows that she continued “her scheming ways” even after being caught hiding assets from bankruptcy.
“It is apparent that Miller is not easily deterred by the threat of criminal prosecution,” he wrote, “even standing before a federal judge.”
Judge Agresti discovered Ms. Miller’s fraud by chance. He said he was channel-surfing one night, came across her TV performances and realized she had more money than she was revealing in her Chapter 11 filings.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said she tried to hide about $755,000 from the bankruptcy trustee.
In the other case, prosecutors said she did not report money that she transferred from Australia into the U.S. after trips there in 2014 to conduct dance instruction classes before large audiences.
Mr. Melucci said she and her entourage brought back about $120,000 in cash tucked into Ziploc bags in amounts less than $10,000 and hidden in their luggage. Among the government’s exhibits is a photo of the cash bundles seized.
Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1504
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