FBI: Embezzled $20 million funded life of jets, mansions and gambling

Federal investigators arrested a former partner and an ex-employee of a prominent Atlanta law firm Monday, saying that the suspects stole almost $21 million from accounts to fund lavish spending on private jets, expensive homes, girlfriends and gambling.

Nathan E. Hardwick, 50, and Asha R. Maurya, 40, were charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and other crimes. FBI investigators said the alleged scheme allowed Hardwick to embezzle over $20 million from escrow and other accounts at the real estate law firm, then called Morris Hardwick Schneider.

Maurya, who aided Hardwick, also faces charges for allegedly skimming more than $900,000 from law firm accounts to pay her credit card and mortgage bills, according to a federal indictment.

The alleged thefts and resulting scandal, which first surfaced in 2014, ultimately led to the law firm’s bankruptcy and collapse. The law firm, which changed its name to Morris Schneider Wittstadt after Hardwick’s resignation, once employed almost 900 people and had offices in 16 states.

“The indictment alleges an embezzlement scheme dating back years,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn in a statement. “Along the way, Mr. Hardwick is alleged to have repeatedly lied to his clients, law partners, banks and others. The allegations are especially troubling given that the actions were orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and to represent his clients with integrity.”

An outside title company also bought control of a title company related to the law firm, LandCastle Title, to keep it afloat.

The two suspects face a total of 29 charges of wire fraud and other crimes. Many of the charges carry maximum sentences of up to 30 years and up to $1 million in fines.

Hardwick, a founding partner who was the largest shareholder in the firm, was accused by his law firm in a 2014 lawsuit of taking $30 million from various accounts for his own use.

According to the federal grand jury indictment, unsealed Monday, Hardwick ran into financial trouble in the late 2000s after the real estate collapse cut into the law firm’s profits.

Meanwhile, Hardwick was trying to keep up with $550,000 a year in alimony payments to his ex-wife while living a high-roller bachelor lifestyle, according to federal investigators.

“Hardwick’s legitimate income could not keep pace with his lavish lifestyle, which included private jet travel; multimillion-dollar homes; high-end retail goods and services; gambling at casinos in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Nevada; and payments to bookies and girlfriends,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said.

The indictment also charges Hardwick with lying to obtain $3.5 million in loans from federally insured banks between 2009 and 2014.

In 2011, investigators said, Hardwick began telling Maurya to pay out millions of dollars to him in secret bonuses, shareholder distributions and other payments from the law firm’s bank and escrow accounts.

Maurya had started as an accounting department employee but was eventually promoted to chief financial officer of the law firm’s real estate deal closing department.

Investigators said she also helped Hardwick cover up the embezzlement, and diverted over $900,000 from the law firm’s accounts to pay credit card bills and home mortgages.

Following their arrest, the two suspects appeared Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Justin S. Anand.