Aubrey Lee Price was sentenced to 70 years in prison Tuesday for orchestrating a fraud that brought down a South Georgia bank and cheated clients. To avoid prosecution, he faked his own death and was caught 18 months later.
The sentencing hearing was held in federal court in Statesboro, where reporters are not allowed to bring recording devices. Court personnel gave the AJC an 80-page transcript of the three-hour hearing, and editors excerpted the transcript.
The excerpts here provide a you-are-there account of the bizarre saga’s conclusion.
U.S. District Judge Avant B. Edenfield’s opening statement before hearing from prosecuting and defense attorneys and the defendant for the sentencing:
I received a number of letters yesterday from various people who are friends or members of the family, including the wife of the defendant. They detail the defendant’s work as a minister, as a banker, as a missionary to Venezuela and other places. They detail in great detail about the work and his work with youth and other matters. There are people who are dismayed and cannot understand that their trust in Mr. Price was not what they thought it would be, that is, that he had disappointed them and indeed shocked them.
I have received letters attached to some things the government submitted, and those are sad and dismaying letters
from people who talk about the loss of their life’s savings, their inability to raise any money, losing their homes, losing
everything that had been — they had set aside for their retirement, for their family.
I have a letter from Mr. Price, and some of the letters of the victims who go on in multiple pages are absolutely sad.
Some graphic illustration: “On Friday night, June 22, 2012, the telephone rang. A trusting friend and former adviser
Said, ‘Lee’s dead,’ the money is gone.” And they detail out $1,774,572.69 was down the drain.
And quoting from the letter: “Aubrey Lee Price didn’t just get our IRA account or our investment account or my pension
account or our trust account; he got it all. Every penny we had on the face of the Earth, outside of a few bucks in our checking account, was gone down the drain. And even worse, he left us with no income beyond my paltry monthly Social Security check, which was insufficient to even cover the property taxes, insurance and utilities on the farm, let alone provide for our survival.”
Price, made a lengthy statement to the court prior to sentencing. These are excerpts:
Your Honor, I’ve listened to the three victim statements, and I’ve also read the 42 total statements over and
over and over again since I’ve received them last Friday.
It means a lot to me to be able to tell each of these three that are here today and any others that are here that I
appreciate their concerns, I appreciate their statements. I receive their criticism fully, and I’m not going to reject it in
any kind of way. I’m grateful for it.
But I would also ask that in the next couple of minutes, next few minutes that maybe they would give me a little time to
try to understand. I really have not made any public statements about what happened, and the few statements that have been made to the press I think have been taken completely out of context.
What I would like to do is just explain a few things to you in the next few minutes, if it’s possible.
But Your Honor, even though I was blessed with dedicated, honest and hard-working parents, my beginnings were
basic and humble. I began working various jobs at the age of 10, including picking squash and onions with migrant workers,
busing tables, washing dishes at a restaurant, cutting grass, laying carpet, cleaning parking lots and working in a retail
hardware store, all while completing junior high and high school.
I worked both full- and part-time jobs to get through college and graduate school, paid for my room, board, tuition,
my vehicles, living expenses, all debt free. I’ve never had a period since graduating high school that I was not employed and working diligently at my jobs. I always give my very best in all my work, treating people fairly and respectfully.
My philosophy that self-sacrifice is the highest achievement of a human being is and always will be the
motivation and the end goal of my work ethic. A 25-year work history as an adult — I always paid my taxes, never took handouts, had no special entitlements and gave generously of my time, energy and financial resources to many different charitable organizations in my community and world.
In 1999 I began working in the financial services industry, and over those next 12 years I learned the inner workings of Wall Street, American capitalism, and the opportunity to problem solve. I was drawn to the challenge, the mystery and the opportunity to be a tentmaker where I could serve my community and church without taking a salary.
My wife, who is here today, along with my four children, whom I have hurt deeply, deeply hurt with many compounded
failures, warned me at the beginning of my Wall Street work that my ambition was a start of the road to hell.
When I entered the financial services industry, I had no idea that I would have to manage money, other people’s money, emotions and expectations during the worst 11-year period …the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But I adapted, absorbed information and learned investment strategies diligently and passionately. I always showed up for work early and left late. I rarely took time off, and never used even one single sick day. I built my business through discipline, hard work and integrity. Nothing was ever given to me. I never begged in business, and I always stood on the merit of what I had to offer and gave value for value.
Over the next few years I had over 700 clients. I met and exceeded every goal set for me by my company in assets
gathered, new accounts, client retention and production achieved. I was always in the top 10 percent of my class in
these categories, and was awarded Blue Chip three years in a row and a $45,000 worth of stock options for Citigroup Smith Barney, all of which are now worthless. Before my failures that culminated in 2012, I had only
one complaint, which came from one of my clients in the year 2000.
The point I want to emphasize today is I was not convicted of any kind of financial fraud as some have suggested and speculated. I always had a good work history, a very high client retention record, and consistently went the extra mile for all my clients during my career.
Even in (this) dreadful economic environment, over time clients that were with me made money, and I made sure of that.
In January 2008 I reduced the number of my clients and began a discretionary hedge fund, meaning that I had control of
the hedge fund. It was for sophisticated and qualified investors, which at that time meant you had to have a net worth
of at least $1 million, extensive experience with various investments.
Obviously no return was promised, guaranteed. No investment was insured against loss. Risks were stated repeatedly on my website, all client statements, the application and prospectus and every written communication with client investors. At that time I put everything I had into the fund, every dime that I had, including four retirement accounts.
In 2009 the fund took on more clients and evolved as it grew in assets and market conditions changed. Looking back, distractions began there. I ventured out of my expertise and purchased a number of real estate properties in South Florida, three large farms in Venezuela where I developed strong relationships. I also purchased lots of gold and silver. By the end of 2009 the number of assets was about $23 million in my hedge fund.
I had a separate business. My separately managed account business still held about $30 million in various assets, and my insurance business held about 500 different policies. In the spring of 2010, several of my largest investors became very interested in purchasing a bank that was in trouble and considered deeply discounted, but had potential to take advantage of the banking crisis environment with large capital injection.
At that time over 50 banks in the state had closed.
(Price goes on to relate his extensively detailed version of how he came to invest his and clients’ money in Montgomery Bank and Trust, how the bank failed and, in his account, how the bank’s management was at fault.)
I understand that there’s anguish of conscience, and I’m trying my best to bring some deliverance to people like Mary Jo
Peters and Mike Smith. I want to make sure that they get the restitution. What I’m saying now is very important to help them and part of that is getting restitution to them, because there are significant assets left. There have been significant
recoveries. When we look at that restitution list, Your Honor, it doesn’t show forth the $7 million that’s already been
collected, and a lot of it’s going to be returned very, very soon.
My point is that I’m working very hard with investigators and with the SEC receiver to help Mary Jo and Mike
Smith and Sherry Thomason and every other client be able to get significant recoveries.
From day one when we bought that bank we received no good news, not one positive financial report, not one meaningful
recovery, not one thing, nothing but dysfunction and bad news. If it could go wrong, it went wrong.
My mind became extremely stressed. The problems affected every part of my business, and sometime in mid April 2011 I lost my ability to come up with any money-making ideas. I had full-blown trader’s block. The bank was bleeding profusely, real estate was not recovering, and my own trading business was suffering greatly.
To make matters worse, several clients were taking out large withdrawals. My travel to Venezuela and Guatemala added
to the time constraints and complexities. I dropped out of my last class at graduate school, and as a result of my poor performance in my equity accounts and me not completing the graduate class, I lost the $40-million account, and one month later I lost the $80-million account.
My clients who put money into the bank lost every dime before we ever put it into the bank. These new institutional accounts that I was supposed to get, they were watching my trading every day, and they saw the losses that were compounding, and there’s no question my losses started compounding immediately and in a very big and horrible way, but
by the end of July I had been deeply deceiving my clients.
Before … that I knew just a few months of trading could make up losses and turn things around.
When I looked Mary Jo Peters in the eye or Mike Smith in the eye, I was hoping against hope that I could turn my trading
around, that I could take capital and make money again as I had before. I wanted to be able to show them I could do it. I
didn’t want to tell them that the losses were there.
But it was still wrong. It was evil. It was fraud.
My world fell apart quickly. The transition from hero to zero was rapid and painful. The mental torment of my
conscience took over quickly. Adversity came in like a flood. Unexpected problems compounded. I had no performance and no confidence.
However, I, me, I pridefully — I stubbornly refused to give up. I worked harder and longer, 18- and 20-hour days. I
used every resource I could to create opportunities, help the bank resolve its problems. I had given up on the bank’s management team. They were undependable,
unmotivated and just taking a paycheck while biding time.
Stress, anxiety and depression would take me over. In the midst of working 18- and 20-hour days, the loss of family relationships, my health also began to deteriorate. I gained extra weight, went to the hospital for a heart attack. I
had multiple panic attacks, ulcers. I broke out in hives. My forehead and arms broke out with skin cancers.
I took no salary for myself in 2011 or 2012, and we all, my family began to suffer seriously. I sold all my possessions. I ran up credit card debt. I had to downsize everything. Most importantly, I lost my family. They lost me, and I lost them.
My failures, my mistakes, my losses, my fraud over this 15-month period left me hopeless. I hid from my family, my clients and my friends. I was embarrassed and humiliated at my failures, my losses and my problems.
Because of the depth of my criminal misconduct, I understand, I know I’ll never pastor another church. I’m disqualified. I will never work in the financial services again. I’m disqualified.
This depression set in. I longed for death exceedingly; my soul was sunk into deep waters, and the floods were ready to drown me. I was so much oppressed that my soul was in a kind of horror.
What I learned about depression is depression affects the brain’s ability to think. Depression leads to confusion. I could not reliably access my faltering brain. I eventually would experience 1,100 sleepless nights as anxiety took over my unbelief. I was too embarrassed to admit that I was losing my mind preparatory to me stepping over the edge. At that time my recollection of events was clouded at best. Depression became an insidious sort of trauma.
In turn, once again, I made many imprudent and illogical decisions. I failed to observe the obvious. I did not know the limits of pain and suffering my mind could endure. I’m still trying to fully comprehend this period of time. I have labeled this time completely inglorious. But slowly, I’m turning these abstractions into (something) concrete.
I’m now learning once again, studying again, seeing again. I have loved learning.
In June 2012, after the conference call with investors in which I fully and completely described our losses related to the bank, I wrote a 26-page confession letter and apology to investors and regulators. I explained that I created false documents. I explained that I falsified documents and moved money fraudulently and illegally.
I broke the laws of our land, laws I promised to obey and honor in both spirit and letter. I stand before this court in shame and humiliation, as I’ve made history in the worst possible way. I also obstructed justice by not turning myself in, and there’s no need for me to try and explain the difficult decisions, the complicated choices and limited options that I faced under extreme duress.
Ultimately, though, I am responsible. I take blame for what I’ve done. I’ve hated myself, and I’ve hated my sin, the sin of missing God, of disobeying God, coming up with my own plans, believing lies and telling lies.
However, my life is much more than just a cautionary story for others to avoid, and I will write, and I will tell the caution that I want to share with other people to avoid my mistakes.
Deservedly, my reputation is one of scorn, a laughingstock among the Earth and a Bible among the nations. I
understand the pain that people feel. I understand their bitterness and their anger. Nevertheless, I want to say this is not the last chapter of my life.
Henry Ford once said that “failure is the opportunity to start again more intelligently.” There’s more to my story. My
story will be about recovery of integrity, restoration and eventually restitution.
I am doing my best to use the adversity and suffering to help me grow stronger, wiser and better. There’s peace after
pain. There’s sight after mystery. Today, once again, I am believing, and my faith is becoming stronger than ever. In
prison, or wherever I am, I will find a way to make full restitution and pay all of my debts. It is my moral, ethical and spiritual obligation and part of my life goal of a totally clean and clear conscience.
My eyes have wept bitterly for my family and my former client losses. I’ve prayed every day for every client, by name
with the most fervent passion of my soul. I will continue this exercise of faith until all restitution is met and paid. My intentions were never to hurt those or cause the damage I did. My only concern then, as it is now, is helping nvestors get what’s due to them.
In closing, I often sit and think of the integrity and the honesty I can no longer claim. Because of my fraud, I can no longer
cling to justice, honesty and integrity that once gave me confidence to stand alone and fight for truth. The broken
promises, the betrayal, the lies, the deceit, all forms of corruption that I vow to scorn and hate the rest of my days.
Lastly, I continue to offer my most sincere and thoroughly inadequate apologies to everyone I’ve hurt and
offended, especially my family, my former investors and law enforcement agencies. I pledge to work with all my heart and my best mind to repair the damage I’ve done. I am fully committed to the way of duty and obligation. I humbly ask the judge to consider a creative sentence that rewards success towards stated restitution goals and opportunities to nourish hope for everyone impacted by my crimes. Thank you.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian T. Rafferty presented three victims of Price’s financial crimes. This is the testimony of one:
Rafferty: Government calls Michael Smith.
Q. Can you just introduce yourself to the court and tell us a little bit about yourself?
A. I will. My wife and I live in Madison, Ga. We have two sons, two daughter-in-laws and four grandkids.
Q. Are you retired?
A. Yes, I am, in 2006.
During the calendar year of 2002, I transferred my investment account and some stock options I was given from my company to Bank of America Investments. Shortly after that, this is where my relationship with Lee Price begins.
I found him to be a soft-spoken individual who claimed to be a Christian. During the same time I was considering retiring
after a 32-year career. My wife and I lived a very conservative life, lived within our means and avoided debt. We saved all we could as we wanted to retire and do volunteer work.
After retiring finally in 2006, Lee invested my lump sum pension as well as my 401K savings plan through Bank of America Investments. After that Lee left Bank of America and went to FSC. I then transferred my account to FSC Brokerage under Lee’s management. Well, Lee would meet with us in our house approximately four times a year to review our account, make suggestions and discussed mission work in Venezuela and talk about families.
At these meetings and at dinner meetings he would always say the prayer and bless the meal. In March of 2009 he met with us and advised us to invest in PFG Growth Hedge Fund. And after reading through his prospectus, I agreed. Communication from March 2009 through April 2012 was consistent, either by online meetings or with fellow investors or face to face. He even came to our church one Sunday. You see, I trusted Lee. Late in 2011 he encouraged me to invest in Montgomery State Bank, which I did not. Then early in 2012 he encouraged me to purchase an office park, which I also said no to. As far as I knew, my money was in the PFG Growth/Hedge Fund.
Then on June 18, 2012, one phone call at 7:45 in the morning changed my life. I discovered Aubrey Lee Price defrauded and stole from me $894,812.54. Since that date and all the news headlines regarding Aubrey Lee Price, I have struggled emotionally in that I find it very difficult to trust anyone. Everyone has now become suspect. This has never been my character or my nature. And now I worry constantly about finances and expenditures as the money that Lee stole from me was a very large part of my hard-earned retirement, and my future.
In Lee’s confession letter, he references scriptures often. Most references are made from the Book of Proverbs and Psalms. These books are known as poetry and words of wisdom.
But absent from the communication is a verse that he should grasp and memorize, and that is Exodus, Chapter 20, Verse 15 that says, “Thou Shall Not Steal.”
After developing a well-thought-out retirement strategy and employing Lee to advise me, it was to include us being able
to remain independent of our two sons in our elderly years and to be able to provide care for our family members who need our help. My wife and I have mothers who depend on us financially, and we also have a very special-needs grandson which will need financial help all his life.
This money was also to be used for our own health care needs, those known and those unknown. My plan was to meet these needs and have the peace of mind that comes with knowing we have enough. But Lee’s fraudulent actions changed all of this. In stealing my retirement, he stole my future and put a very dark cloud on my remaining years. Since retiring in 2006, this heavy financial loss has caused my wife and I to return to work. I too have listened to Lee’s soft-spoken voice and his persuasive style for over 10 years. As I repeat, we met regularly about four times a year. He’s been to my house; I’ve been to his office in Florida, toured the real estate holdings. We felt we knew Lee.
I understand in his plea that he wrote a very complete and thoughtful letter to the Court. Well, I also received a letter this spring as well from Lee, and it was very soft and very thoughtful. However, I’ve come to realize that this style and mannerism is a trap he sets to take advantage of someone else, including close friends and family alike and just excuse
In an interview published on August 5, 2014, Lee stated, “I longed to be with my dog again, a Golden Retriever named Holly Jolly. I probably won’t ever see my dog again, and she’s my best friend.”
Well, I am so sorry. I will never see my money again, and neither will — many of his friends. So for every day that my wife and I live, we will be reminded of the imposter and thief Lee is. And his sentence, whatever the length deemed by this Court appropriate, will never be enough punishment for what he has created for us and our extended families.
And Your Honor, one final fact, my loss of $894,812.54 was an IRA, which would be taxed as I withdrew it, so this means
there’s going to be another loss to the Federal Government of the United States of $179,000 and a loss to the State of Georgia of $53,900. Thank you.
Joshua Sabert Lowther, an attorney with the National Federal Defense Group, presented two witnesses who testified on behalf of Price. This is the testimony of one:
Lowther: Your Honor, I’d like to call Mr. Robert Anderson.
Q. Mr. Anderson could you tell Judge Edenfield a little bit about yourself and how you know Lee Price?
A. I met Lee Price in June of 1989, I believe it was. I was pastor of First Baptist Church, Swainsboro. And we called him
to be our youth minister. We were looking for someone who could disciple young people, and he came very highly recommended to us. And he did just that. He was one of the best youth ministers I had on staff, all my 26 years of ministering in the local church. He — he was extremely good at meeting children at their point of need, youth at their point of need. I saw him risk his own financial well-being, handing money to families in time of need and being there for their children.
I saw him help children come out of a repetitive lifestyle that would have grew up in poverty situations. I saw him relate, even to the point of physical, dealing with an AIDS patient, and I finally had to say to him, Lee, you’re going to have to deal with that. We can’t continue down that road, because we didn’t have the means or the wherewithal to really help him. And then he found a location for the patient to go to and receive the help that he needed.
I saw him just give of himself. He was a tremendous witness of the Lord Jesus, very effective in sharing the Gospel.
Everybody has heard, everybody knows, he’s confessed. We’ve all sinned and we’ve all fallen short. My concern today, not only for Lee, but for his family, especially his children, and would ask for leniency and mercy. Thank you.
Excerpts of Judge Edenfield’s remarks as he issued the sentence:
The Court has heard the alpha and omega of how Mr. Price affects people. There were excellent letters from well-meaning people who have a reputation of Christianity and high standing and status in their community. There were some that fell in between that. The pain to them, the loss had been enormous, yet they had a forgiving attitude, one of those witnesses testified.
And I heard some of Mr. Price’s statements that show there’s an illusion still.
I’ve read the plea agreement, and considered the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). Mr. Price, pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, when I tried to meld all of this together, it is the judgment of the Court that you, Aubrey Lee Price, are committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons to be imprisoned for a term of 360 months as to each of Counts 4 of indictments — and you got the number there — and Count 2 of the indictment; and 240 months as to Count 1 of the indictment. All to be served concurrently.
Now, restitution is due in some amount. The amount at the time the report was furnished to me was $45,939,944.39 to the victims identified.
Now, anyone knows that the economic circumstances of the defendant does not allow for payment of this in full amount of
restitution under any foreseeable schedule of payment. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3664 (f)(3)(B) — and I know it sounds hollow — nominal payments quarterly of a minimum of $25 will be sent by Mr. Price to the Clerk of the United States District Court in Savannah.
The defendant is never to be employed in any fiduciary capacity or to ever have more than one bank account.
And in addition, the defendant shall forfeit all proceeds realized from the circumstances of the instant offense, including, but not limited to, income generated through the sale of any book, movie script, documentary, published article or personal interview, to the restitution owed to this case.
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