by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:ATLANTA —
A business partner of a missing Georgia banker accused in a multi-million dollar investment scheme says he was just as shocked as the clients were when he learned their investment accounts were empty.
Justin Zegalia spoke exclusively with Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer on Thursday.
Zegalia worked with Aubrey “Lee” Price for 12 years until Price vanished last month, leaving behind a confession and suicide note.
"I've been through a lot of emotions, disbelief, anger, frustration, sadness," said Zegalia, adding that he could not have imagined this kind of betrayal. "He obviously was very fraudulent and deceptive, and he used the Christian faith and his relationship with God as kind of a front to all this."
Zegalia said he learned of Price's alleged fraud three weeks ago, along with 115 clients, who lost around $40 million. Price is now charged with bank fraud, in connection with the failure of Montgomery Bank and Trust in Ailey and Vidalia.
A lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says Price faked his clients' statements to hide excessive losses.
"I'm here to do the best I can to recover the money. I don't have a lot of power in that, obviously. That's where the SEC and the FBI come in, but that's what I'm trying to do is basically hold the hand of the clients to get them through this," said Zegalia.
He said he's spent the last several weeks fielding calls from emotional and angry clients, many of whom lost their entire savings and retirement funds.
"I am heartbroken for them and sorry for them, and I hate it," Zegalia said.
Price's 25-page letter entitled “Confidential Confession for Regulators” says, “I realize that time is up, and there is no way that I can work my way out of the mess that I have created.”
According to his arrest affidavit, he told others he planned to kill himself off the coast of Florida by jumping off of a ferry boat, but “despite a recent search by the coast guard, Price's body has not been recovered.”
"I don't think for a minute that he's dead," said Zegalia, adding that he believes Price may be hiding out in Venezuela where he owns property.
"I think that's pretty evident to anybody that's known Lee. A lot of the investors have been to Venezuela with Lee and anybody that knows anything about this thinks that's where he's at," said Zegalia.
Price said in his letter that Zegalia and others had “no knowledge of any fraudulent activity.”
Zegalia told Fleischer he had no inkling of what was going on, "None, absolutely none," he said, adding, "I was at a distance. I'm in Georgia. He's in Florida."
Zegalia ran Price's investment office in McDonough and recruited many of Price's clients. He said he had no access to the actual accounts, but that the initial fund paperwork clients signed said the investments were insured.
"Fraud and errors and omissions, which certainly fraud, this would be a huge fraud," said Zegalia.
Fleischer asked if he thinks there's a chance that an insurance policy exists to cover the clients’ losses.
He replied, "That's the biggest question I've been getting. I don't even know who to ask that question to get the proper answer."
Zegalia said he's had to sell some of his possessions to keep afloat, and that even his own mother had invested with Price.
The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information on Price's whereabouts.