April 19--WEST PALM BEACH -- A 65-year-old former Lake Worth financial planner has won a new trial in connection with what prosecutors called a $1.3 million investment scam.
In a four-page opinion, the 4th District Court of Appeal on Wednesday threw out Michael Hardman's conviction on two counts of grand theft and a five-year prison sentence. Hardman, it said, is entitled to a new trial because his attorney didn't ask now retired Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Stephen Rapp to tell jurors that he was relying on a good faith defense.
During the 2015 trial, witnesses -- most of whom met Hardman through the financial planning business he inherited from his father -- testified that they gave Hardman money to invest in what he said was a safe growth fund. In most cases, he made some interest payments to the investors but eventually stopped, an arrest report said.
But Hardman insisted they had loaned him money. While he acknowledged that he was obligated to repay it, he claimed he never said he would invest it. It's not illegal to fail to repay a loan.
According to arrest reports, he had investors sign up to invest in a company called "Tech Support Systems" and sign agreements identifying the investments as loans with himself as the personal guarantor.
The West Palm Beach-based appeals court said Hardman's claims were bolstered by promissory notes he gave the supposed investors.
"Given that the term 'loan' was explicitly used, it is conceivable the defendant believed he was entitled to spend the funds as he wished," it wrote. "This belief is made even more probable considering the promissory notes never specified how or if the money would be invested."
His attorney, Elizabeth Gardner, should have asked Rapp to give the jury a specific instruction, detailing the law that allows people to employ what is known as a good faith defense, the court said.
Hardman has been on house arrest while awaiting for his appeal to be decided.
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