Almost a year and a half after she was first indicted on 20 counts of fraud, former Dance Moms host Abby Lee Miller was sentenced today to one year and one day in prison by a federal judge in Pittsburgh. After reporting in to a facility likely close to Los Angeles in about a month and a half and serving her time, Miller will have an additional two years of supervised release, Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti told the crying defendant and a packed courtroom this morning.
“You weren’t truthful, even when you knew you were supposed to tell everything, you still weren’t truthful,” Conti told Miller. “Somehow you got caught up in the world of fame and you lost your moral compass,” she added.
As a part of the cost of that loss, Miller will have to pay a fine of $40,000 and a $120,000 judgment for the currency-reporting violation charge the feds hit her with last summer. (UPDATE, 10:55 AM – Miller’s main lawyer Robert Ridge said outside courtroom that the defense “respects” the judge’s decision and has no plans to appeal. “I feel relieved, I feel peaceful,” Miller added to her attorney’s comments)
With the rarely low-key Miller having hidden more than $755,000 in earnings from the Lifetime reality series from the courts, the nearly two-dozen charges of fraud and more from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh were made public in October 2015. The detailed charges carried with them up to $5 million in fines and a possible five years in jail. If precedent for such white collar crime is a factor, it is likely Miller will not end up serving her full sentence in prison and be out in about nine months.
The ruling by Conti this morning comes after the government laid out its final argument and Miller took the stand in her own defense. “Dance Moms became a hit and I became a laughing stock of reality TV,” the former host tearfully told the judge of the perils of sudden fame that plagued her and led to the situation she found herself in today. Chastising herself for her behavior, Miller promised the judge she would not be back in a courtroom if given leniency. Miller also expressed a desire to go out for lunch with Conti “after this” — which now looks like it would be in 2020, if at all.
Earlier in the day, five character witnesses for the defense told the court that the argumentative and combative Miller seen on Dance Moms is not the person she really is.
On Monday, the court held a long session where the defense partially laid out its side of things with numerous witnesses outlining Miller’s bankruptcy. As a prelude to today, the hearing also saw Conti formally deliver the sentencing guidelines of 10-16 months and a $5,000-$55,000 fine for the fraud charges, and 18-24 months and a $7,500-$75,000 fine on the currency-reporting charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s office had wanted to see Miller behind bars for 2 1/2 years , while her lawyers sought probation for the first-time offender.
Today’s proceedings come as Miller is seemingly off TV for the next little while after she announced in late March that she was leaving the Lifetime series after several often contentious seasons due to dust-up with a Dance Moms producer on the Collins Avenue series. Having said that, there seems to have a been a lot of activity of late at Miller’s ALDC LA facility on Santa Monica Blvd in West LA. Additionally, sources say that Miller, never camera-shy, filmed a Dance Moms clip show recently.
Like today, Miller was in court for yesterday’s hearing, with her sometimes on-air adversaries Christi Lukasiak and Kelly Hyland sitting behind her. Their presence sent mixed messages, especially with Hyland suing Miller in 2014 for assault, defamation and destruction of her property.
Almost overlooked, the shifty details of Miller’s fraud only came out by accident. If bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti hadn’t nonchalantly turned on the then-relatively new Dance Moms on TV one night a few years ago, the buried big bucks might have never been dug up. Agresti was overseeing Miller’s pre-Dance Moms bankruptcy case, which looked to be winding up. However, while watching the show, the judge started wondering why money from the show wasn’t being included as a part of the bankruptcy proceedings, which had Miller claiming a total income of $8,899 a month.
A subsequent investigation by the feds revealed there were a lot of reasons why Agresti hadn’t seen anything. Among the many deceptions she employed, Miller had Collins Avenue pay her mother some of the thousands of dollars in fees due to her to escape the court’s notice.
After first pleading not guilty in November 2015 and putting up a public fight, the embattled Dance Moms host spun around and entered a guilty plea on June 27, 2016 as she faced the new charge of violating currency-reporting laws.
Monday’s hearing was filled with attorneys questioning FBI agent Sean Langford, the lead in the fraud case, along with reviewing emails and spreadsheets that included invoices and paychecks that the U.S Attorney’s office said were never reported when Miller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Also, lawyer David Valencik, of Pittsburgh-based bankruptcy firm Calaiaro Valencik, testified that Miller hired the firm in 2010 as her finances hit a rough patch and her local dance studio faced a tax sale.
Interestingly, Valencik admitted that back then Dance Moms was not considered a strong source of income for Miller. “We didn’t think it was reliable,” the bankruptcy lawyer told the courtroom as a witness for the defense. Later in the day, Valencik told the court the Dance Moms money became much more central to Miller’s life and the bankruptcy case.
Repeating much of what they had said in previous documents submitted to the court in January, both Miller’s defense team and the feds filed final sentencing briefs late last week (read them here and here), with the former advocating probation because of lack of priors while the latter again sought jail time. Earlier this year, Judge Conti implied in tentative findings that she was inclined to lean towards no jail time for Miller because ultimately none of her creditors had been stiffed in the bankruptcy.
Part of Miller’s argument for leniency was that she made ill-considered choices because she was too caught up in the rapid acceleration of her life due to the success of Dance Moms. “Ms. Miller respectfully requests that the Court impose a non-custodial sentence after considering her acceptance of responsibility and the nature and characteristics of her conduct and her life,” said attorneys Robert Ridge and Brandon Verdream in a sentencing memorandum submitted early this year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Melucci strongly disagreed, and made it known at the first part of the sentencing sessions January 20. Trying to convince the judge that Miller was not so innocent or duped by her own celebrity, he told Conti that the government believed the Dance Moms host “intended to cause harm” to her creditors by deliberately misrepresenting her income on bankruptcy filings in 2012.
That hearing on the same day that Donald Trump became President also saw Miller try to walk things back a bit. Her lawyers told the court Miller was dropping her attempts to keep the $120,000 she was accused of illegally sneaking into America from Australia in the summer of 2014. The feds also took something off the table too; the government had previously claimed that Miller had used minors to get the money back to America, implying members of the Dance Moms team. At that January 20 hearing, they removed their request to enhance Miller’s sentence for the use of minors in her activity of not reporting bringing more that $10,000 into the country.
Back in the TV world, there is no official word from Lifetime whether Dance Moms will be back for another season, though all indications are it will. There is also no official word who will be fronting the next season of the show.
Stephanie Hacke contributed to this report.