Prosecutors say a McDonough lawyer preyed on his friends and colleagues to steal more than $2 million in a real estate scam across three states.
Now the disbarred attorney faces up to 20 years in a federal prison. He also must repay all of the money.
Steven H. Ballard, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud Thursday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
Ballard's Ponzi scheme, which ran from September 2002 to May 2006, netted 24 victims in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, prosecutors said. He targeted friends, colleagues and church members.
"He came with legal documents and deeds, showing the transactions that occurred," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gale McKenzie said Thursday. "There were forged sales contracts from bogus sellers."
Ballard told his clients he was making lucrative investments, often promising profits exceeding 50 percent of the initial investment. He would then deposit the closing fees in his law firm's escrow account instead of turning them over to the seller, prosecutors said.
He even continued to fraud people after he was charged in Clayton County and was suspended by the State Bar of Georgia, prosecutors said.
Ballard collected more than $2 million and has returned about half of the money, McKenzie said.
Michael Martin, Ballard's attorney, said his client has returned the majority of the money and is in the process of repaying the rest.
"He came in and accepted responsibility for his conduct," Martin said Thursday. "He's never denied what took place."
Martin said his client, who is out on bond, is working part-time at a convenience store and organizing golf tournaments to make back the money. He lives in a rented home in McDonough with his three sons.
"He has no assets. His home was foreclosed and his car was repossessed," Martin said. "This perception that he has all this money is simply not true."
Ballard was handling Lester Spriggle's divorce when he asked the business owner to invest in a Coweta County property.
"He knew I got $150,000 from a divorce settlement and he asked to borrow the money," Spriggle said Thursday.
Spriggle thought he was buying a home from Ballard. He ended up buying a house that never legally belonged to Ballard, Spriggle said.
"We gave him money to pay liens, which were never paid," he said.
Spriggle said Ballard took about $260,000 from him. Spriggle said he still doesn't own the house, which is tied up in a civil lawsuit in Coweta County.
Ballard told Peachtree City attorney Don Comer, a friend of 25 years and former golfing companion, he desperately needed the money to help cover some investments. Comer said he and his wife took out a loan for $127,000.
"He ended up giving us a bad check," Comer said. "He told friends it was a minor misunderstanding and he repaid everyone."
Comer said he hasn't received any of his money back.
"It is disappointing," Comer said. "We've been hurt by it, but we're OK. There are others who lost everything."
Prosecutors said a retired firefighter invested his life savings on what he thought was a condo in Panama City, Fla. It turned out to be an empty lot that was sold to multiple people.
Spriggle said he trusted Ballard because of his esteemed reputation practicing law in the south metro area. Ballard spent years teaching as an adjunct professor at Clayton State University and practicing law with a Clayton County judge in Forest Park.
"He dropped all the right names and they all gave good references for him," Spriggle said. "He just seemed like someone you could trust."
Ballard, a lawyer since 1981, was disbarred in 2006. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 29.
Ballard initially faced charges in Florida and several counties in Georgia, but those charges will likely be dropped because of the federal plea, prosecutors said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.