Was Atlanta lawyer a mastermind embezzler or duped by ‘habitual thief’?

Atlanta lawyer Nathan Hardwick, on trial for stealing more than $26 million from his law firm.
Atlanta lawyer Nathan Hardwick, on trial for stealing more than $26 million from his law firm.

At the end of 2010, Atlanta attorney Nathan “Nat” Hardwick’s bank accounts were $38,000 in the red.

Even so, Hardwick somehow found a way to continue his life of luxury, buying lavish homes and flitting across the country in private jets, U.S. Attorney Russell Phillips told jurors Monday during opening statements of the high-profile fraud trial.

Over the next three and a half years, the 52-year-old attorney would fork out $10 million to bookies and casinos, Phillips said. He'd pay $680,000 for a luxury condo at The St. Regis Atlanta, buy a $273,000 diamond ring for a "social companion," and make a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island. To top it off, Hardwick spent $635,000 on a customized Boeing 737 jet to take his golfing buddies to see the British Open in 2014.

Hardwick accomplished all this by raking in a steady stream of embezzlements from his Morris Hardwick Schneider law firm — more than $26 million in all, Phillips said.

Hardwick helped build Morris Hardwick Schneider into one of the nation’s largest real estate closing firms, with 800 employees in 16 states. But he then used it as his own personal piggy bank, prosecutors said.

Hardwick faces two dozen criminal counts and a lengthy stay in federal prison if convicted. The trial, closely followed by Atlanta’s legal community, should last about a month.

(The firm, which changed its name to Morris Schneider Wittstadt, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015.)

Hardwick’s defense attorney, Ed Garland, told jurors that prosecutors have it all wrong.

Hardwick would never have stolen from the law firm he loved and hoped to grow, Garland said. He was duped by Asha Maurya, the firm's chief financial officer who robbed the firm out of at least $900,000, he said.

“Mr. Hardwick throughout this was deceived by Asha Maurya,” Garland said. “He did not know she was a thief.”

Maurya, who was charged with Hardwick in a 2016 indictment, reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in May. She is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution.

But she carries a lot of baggage. She defrauded companies she worked for before joining Morris Hardwick Schneider and stole money from an ambulance company that hired her after she left the law firm, Garland said. Then she lied about those past crimes to federal prosecutors after becoming a government witness, he said.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland.
Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland.

“Asha Maurya is a pathological, habitual thief and liar,” the 77-year-old Garland said. “I say that, the age that I am, with total belief that I can prove it. No human being would put any weight on any word that comes out of her mouth.”

In a telephone interview, Maurya’s lawyer, Page Pate, said his client has accepted responsibility for her actions.

“But it’s clear to anyone who’s closely followed this case that Nat Hardwick was the main culprit here,” Pate said. “In this case, I expect the evidence to be primarily supported by documents and records. It’s not unusual for a criminal defense attorney to try and shift the focus away from his client to someone else.”

Hardwick initially needed the money because he was saddled with mountainous debts, Phillips told jurors. He owed more than $400,000 to the IRS, $2.2 million for a loan he used to buy out his former law firm, and $5.5 million that had to be paid over time to his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement.

Hardwick also faced lawsuits from creditors. In January 2011, the Belagio resort and casino in Las Vegas sued Hardwick for $250,000 in unpaid gambling debts, according to court records.

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As managing partner of the firm’s Atlanta office, Hardwick had an enormous pool of money to tap into, Phillips told jurors. Because Morris Hardwick Schneider closed thousands of real estate transactions a month, it received hundreds of millions of dollars in closing funds that it was required to hold in trust in escrow accounts.

Maurya managed those trust accounts and the firm’s operating account, and she tapped them to pay Hardwick $100,000 to $500,000 at a time for his personal benefit, Phillips said.

Phillips told jurors he fully expected Garland to attack Maurya’s credibility. But she didn’t lie to Hardwick when she diverted millions of dollars of the firm’s money to him, and it was Hardwick who chose her to help him carry out the fraud, the prosecutor said.

“Nat Hardwick knew all along that Asha Maurya was no Snow White,” Phillips said. “He is a thief and a liar.”

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