Victims of a Ponzi scheme that bilked investors for as much as $60 million may have a hard time getting any money back.
Wendell Spell, the Clermont heavy equipment dealer who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court Monday, has few remaining assets, his lawyer said Tuesday.
"He’s absolutely broke," attorney Paul Cognac said.
Spell has been sued in Hall County Superior Court by 18 victims in three separate lawsuits seeking to recover money lost by the plaintiffs, but the federal government could take precedence over any civil judgment.
What little cash Spell had in bank accounts has been frozen by the government, his attorney said. His house has been foreclosed on.
Most of the money collected by Spell "went back into his business," Cognac said.
Cognac said that though his client pleaded guilty to wire fraud, he disputes the numbers alleged in the government’s charging document. Prosecutors say Spell’s scheme involved at least 50 victims with losses in excess of $60 million.
"We contend that figure is overblown," Cognac said. "We think those figures will turn out to be substantially less."
Spell faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge William C. O’Kelley. Because he has cooperated with the government, Spell could get less time than the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines.
In the meantime, probation officers will conduct an extensive investigation that will include determining what assets Spell has. Restitution will be part of his sentence.
"The government does intend to push for him to pay back every penny he has stolen, but an exact amount has yet to be determined," said Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta.
Cognac said much of the restitution likely is to come after Spell’s release from prison, whenever that may be.
"I don’t know if he’ll be able to pay back all he owes, but he certainly wants to make amends to the best of his ability," Cognac said.
The government also has filed forfeiture claims on 10 pieces of heavy equipment owned by Spell.
Graham McKinnon, an attorney representing one victim who claims to have lost $500,000 to Spell, said if Spell "doesn’t have anything other that what is seized by the federal government, I would be very disappointed for my client."
McKinnon is skeptical that there isn’t some money somewhere.
"It’s hard to believe he would steal from this many people and not have something put away for a rainy day," McKinnon said.
McKinnon said the biggest hurdle so far has been getting Spell served with the lawsuit. Spell has proven elusive since his business collapsed in October, and he is now living in an undisclosed location on $25,000 bond after allegedly receiving death threats.
Spell may not be served with the lawsuits until after his sentencing hearing.
"Once he’s sentenced, we’ll know where to find him," McKinnon said.