Hard­wick con­victed of em­bez­zling $26M

Jury con­victs Hard­wick of tak­ing $26M from his firm to feed his life­style.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Rankin brankin@ajc.com

Fed­eral jury finds high-fly­ing At­lanta lawyer looted his own firm to sup­port lux­u­ri­ous life­style, lav­ish gam­bling debts.

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 a 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 Hard- wick 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 week­s­long 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.

Hard­wick 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 one­time 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 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.

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