ATLANTA - The consummate salesman, Nat Hardwick aggressively grew Atlanta’s Morris Hardwick Schneider into one of the top real estate law firms in the country. And he had even grander plans: put offices in all 50 states and then make a bundle through a public stock offering.
On Friday, however, a federal jury found that Hardwick was already making a fortune — illicitly — off his firm. After deliberating for more than a day, the jury found Hardwick had embezzled $26 million from firm accounts and used much of the money to feed his lavish gambling habits and support a luxurious lifestyle.
Hardwick, 53, was convicted of conspiring to commit wire fraud and multiple counts of wire fraud and making a false statement to federally insured financial institution. Hardwick, who was out on bond, was ordered taken into custody by U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Federal prosecutors said Hardwick had millions of dollars wired from his firm’s accounts over a three-year period ending in August 2014. Much of the money paid off gambling debts, personal loans, alimony obligations and private jets. More than $5.9 million was wired to the Harrah’s, Cosmopolitan, Beau Rivage and Venetian casinos, according to evidence introduced at trial.
Through a 2005 merger, Morris Hardwick Schneider cornered large chunks of the real estate closing market. The firm had more than 800 employees in 16 states.
But allegations of Hardwick’s thefts, and the resulting scandal, first surfaced about five years ago. It led to the firm’s bankruptcy, and Hardwick’s law license being suspended by the state Supreme Court in 2016.
At the end of the weeks long trial, Hardwick tried to fend off a conviction by taking the stand in his own defense.
He described himself as the face of the firm, the guy who gave out his cellphone number to almost anyone. He returned all calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. Hardwick said he specialized in marketing and customer service and focused on the firm’s overall expansion strategy.
“I was extremely busy, but I loved it,” he said. “I thought we had a bright and lucrative future.”
Hardwick acknowledged receiving millions of dollars from the firm.
“It was my personal money,” he said. “I could spend it how I wanted to spend it.”
He then added, referring to his spending habits, “There are things I wish I hadn’t done.”
Hardwick contended he did not know that millions of dollars of his payments had been drawn from the firm’s escrow accounts — accounts that hold money in trust for the firm’s clients and which are never to be used for a partner’s compensation.
Hardick laid the blame on Asha Maurya, the firm’s former chief financial officer. She was the one who wired Hardwick’s payments, and, except on one occasion, she never told him that money was coming from the firm’s escrow accounts, he testified. On the one occasion he was made aware of it, Maurya apologized for the error and said it was a one-time slip-up, Hardwick said.
“I trusted my people, to my detriment,” he told the jury.
Maurya was also charged with Hardwick in the 2016 indictment. In May, she reached a plea agreement in which she admitted stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the firm. Prosecutors, who unexpectedly declined to call Maurya as a witness, told jurors that Hardwick knew exactly what she was doing.
Hardwick testified that he had nothing to do with Maurya’s hiring and believed she was following proper procedures.
“Did you trust her?” Hardwick’s lawyer, Ed Garland, asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” Hardwick replied.
Hardwick was on the stand for more than a day. On occasion, he appeared smug as he touted his achievements, sometimes talking so fast Garland had to tell him to slow down. When Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Phillips methodically went through his massive draw-downs from the firm’s accounts, Hardwick calmly acknowledged each and every one of them.
During opening statements, Phillips said Hardwick used Morris Hardwick Schneider as his own personal piggy bank. He tapped into its accounts to pay for women and to pay off bookies, and there seemed to be no bounds to his spending.
Hardwick paid $680,000 for a condo at The St. Regis Atlanta, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island and spent $635,000 on a customized Boeing 737 to take his golfing buddies to attend the British Open in 2014, Phillips said.
“He’s a thief and a liar,” the prosecutor said.
This article was written by Bill Rankin with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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