WINTER PARK, Fla. – When Ella Reid needs to hire new employees for her small janitorial and construction cleaning business, she occasionally recruits minimum security inmates from a local halfway house.
When she visited an Orlando federal reentry center last March, Reid said she overheard a man named Michael Nelson giving legal advice to an inmate.
“After the conversation was over, I asked (Nelson) what he did,” said Reid. “He told me he was an attorney.”
But the man whom Reid met that day has never graduated from a law school or passed a state bar exam, court records show.
At the time of their conversation, Nelson was a federal inmate himself. He was serving the final months of a prison sentence for stealing the identity of a real attorney in California and illegally collecting fees from clients, court records show.
Reid, who was unaware of Nelson’s extensive criminal history, told him about her difficulty collecting money from a former customer.
“(Nelson) told me he could assist me with it and gave me a business card,” said Reid.
Ten months later, after paying Nelson’s company thousands of dollars, Reid counts herself as one of his many fraud victims.
“He took advantage of me,” she said. “He’s a con artist.”
Nelson has spent more than 15 of the last 17 years in federal prison for bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud, and aggravated identity theft, records show.
After convictions in Central Florida, California, and Illinois, judges have ordered Nelson to repay fraud victims more than $1.5 million.
Since his most recent release from federal custody in April 2016, Nelson has been under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office.
While on probation, Nelson began operating an online church that caters to the LGBT community.
“When Christ comes into your life, people do make a change,” Nelson told News 6 outside the Orlando home where he webcasts his sermons. “I extend an apology to everybody.”
A recent News 6 investigation raised many questions about Global LGBT Life Church, including Nelson’s attempts to solicit money for his new ministry.
Fewer than two months before Nelson declared himself the “senior pastor” of the church, he was the “Global Chief Litigation Liaison & Compliance Officer” of a Winter Park company, records show.
'It was an attorney's office'
Shortly after meeting Nelson, Reid set up an appointment to visit his firm, Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman. The business was located in an office building on Aloma Avenue in Winter Park.
“It was very professional,” said Reid, who was impressed with the receptionist who greeted her at the front door and the handful of offices that housed the company’s staff.
Online advertisements for Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman described the Winter Park business as a “law firm” or “business consulting” firm that “specializes in litigation and legal assistance in federal cases”.
News 6 could find no record of such a law firm on file with the Florida Bar.
“It was an attorney’s office. That’s what I perceived it to be,” said Reid.
Reid was also under the impression that the woman whose name was on the firm’s door, Marsha Ward, was a lawyer who ran the business.
“(Nelson) explained to me Marsha Ward was an attorney and he was an attorney,” said Reid.
But as News 6 learned, Ward did not have any legal experience.
In fact, she claims that she never met the man who was running the firm that bore her name until months after it began taking money from clients.
Who is Marsha Ward?
From her mobile home in a rural Texas community, Ward told News 6 that she first began communicating with Nelson via email while he was still serving time for stealing a California attorney’s identity.
“My cousin was incarcerated with Nelson in Fort Worth federal prison,” said Ward. “My cousin told me he was an attorney.”
Ward, 65, is a military veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she told News 6.
At the time she began receiving emails from Nelson, Ward said she was working part-time in a hotel at night and collecting Social Security disability payments.
“He’s very very cunning,” said Ward. “You fall under him.”
As Nelson was about to be transferred to a federal halfway house closer to his mother in Orlando, Ward said she agreed to help him get back on feet.
According to Ward, Nelson wanted to open an office in Central Florida to assist prisoners like himself.
“He did not call it a law firm,” said Ward. “All I know is he and other attorneys would be helping inmates.”
Ward told News 6 that she took out a lease for office space in the Winter Park building. She also said she purchased office equipment and supplies for Nelson, including printers and a cell phone.
“Basically it was a loan,” said Ward. “I put it on a credit card.”
Nelson moved back to Orlando without ever meeting Ward in person, she said.
Once he began working at the Winter Park office, Ward told News 6 she filed documents with the halfway house indicating to prison officials that Nelson had a job.
“He smoothed me into signing the paperwork,” she said.
At the time Ward was arranging and funding the offices for Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman, she claims that she was taking powerful prescription drugs to treat her PTSD.
“When I came off the damn medication, that’s when I saw what in the hell was going on,” she said.
Ward estimated that she gave Nelson as much as $20,000 to set up his business and help get her cousin out of prison early. Yet she claims that Nelson failed to repay her or provide any legal assistance.
So Ward made a surprise trip to Central Florida to check up on the firm named after her. She said it was the first time she had ever met Nelson face-to-face.
“I stood at the doorway of his office,” said Ward. “He was pissed. He did not like it that I showed up unannounced.”
Ward said Nelson agreed to take her name off the company. She also said she closed a credit card that she put in Nelson’s name that had exceeded its $6000 credit limit.
Nelson refuses to discuss business
When News 6 attempted to question Nelson about his involvement with Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman, he claimed that he was legally prohibited from discussing the firm.
“I can’t speak due to a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement that I have with them,” said Nelson.
Ward told News 6 that she was unaware of any non-disclosure agreements involving her namesake company.
Although News 6 could not locate any records with the Florida Division of Corporations under the name Marsha Ward, there is a filing for a company called Team Ombudsman Firm.
Paperwork filed with the state lists Nelson’s mother Betty as the firm’s president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
“Definitely not,” Nelson said in response to a question about his mother’s role as an officer in the company. “I’m going to say the directors are out of Texas.”
Betty Nelson declined to speak to News 6 about her involvement in the company.
In 2003, while Nelson was serving out the last few months of a prison sentence for committing fraud in Central Florida, a News 6 investigation found that Nelson was leaving a minimum-security halfway house during the day to operate a so-called “law office."
Nelson was collecting fees to provide legal services to federal inmates even though the firm of Townes, Boyd and Partners did not have any attorneys on staff. Following News 6’s report, U.S. marshals arrested Nelson and returned him to maximum-security custody.
State records show that Betty Nelson was listed as an officer of that firm.
Client claims Nelson ripped off her company
Shortly after Reid signed a one-year contract with Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman, the businesswoman said she suffered a mild stroke.
“(Nelson) came to the hospital and said ‘Oh, I can help you’,” Reid recalled. “I needed to rest and he took advantage of where I was.”
Nelson took over human resources duties at Reid’s cleaning company including payroll, recruitment, and employee training, she said.
“As far as the recruitment part, he did a great job,” Reid said.
However, the businesswoman claims that she soon discovered that Nelson had failed to pay certain taxes on behalf of her company, resulting in thousands of dollars in late fees.
“Now I’m getting penalized big time,” said Reid.
Around that same time, Reid said Nelson offered to process a credit card payment from one of her delinquent customers.
“(Nelson said) he could accept credit card payments through Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman,” Reid said.
According to Reid, the customer paid Nelson’s firm $9960 via credit card. However, Reid claims that Nelson never transferred those funds to her cleaning business.
“He never gave me the money,” said Reid. “Never.”
When News 6 attempted to question Nelson about the credit card payment, he asked a reporter to leave his property.
“Goodbye,” Nelson said, closing the door to his home without addressing Reid’s claims.
Probation officer notified as firm closes
In October, as Reid was attempting to recoup her cleaning company’s $9960 credit card payment from Nelson, the businesswoman called the firm and spoke to another employee.
“I found out through one of the workers that (Nelson’s) probation officer had come to the office,” said Reid. “They were shocked because they didn’t know he had a probation officer.”
A short time later, Reid learned that Team Ombudsman Firm had officially closed and vacated its Winter Park office.
News 6 has been unable to immediately identify who notified Nelson’s probation officer about potential problems at Nelson’s firm or when the report was made.
Representatives from the U.S. Probation Office for the Middle District of Florida declined to answer specific questions about Nelson.
“It is the practice of the probation office not to comment on the supervision adjustment of individuals on federal supervision,” chief probation officer Joseph C. Collins wrote in an email to News 6. “If the probation office became aware of alleged criminal activity, we would refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Ward told News 6 that she made a second trip to Central Florida in October to meet with senior U.S. probation officer Julio Dominguez. During that visit, Ward claims that she provided the probation office with Nelson’s cell phone bills and financial statements, among other records.
Ward said she also put the probation officer in touch with a California man who claims that he paid Nelson more than $40,000 to provide legal assistance to his son.
“(Nelson) and my son were incarcerated together,” said Matt Brown. “Michael (Nelson) offered to help reduce his sentence.”
Reid also sent Dominguez records documenting her cleaning company’s missing $9960 credit card payment, she said.
Dominquez did not respond to emails and voicemail messages left by News 6 seeking comment.
Under the conditions of Nelson’s supervised release from prison, the probationer is prohibited from holding a position of “fiduciary capacity”. The term typically refers to someone who takes care of money or assets for another person, including a trustee, executor, or guardian.
Nelson is also required to work regularly at a lawful occupation and must provide his probation officer with access to any financial information, court records show.
Reid believes that Nelson violated his probation by posing as an attorney and failing to return her money.
“If I thought I could dial 911 and send the police over (to Nelson’s house), I would,” said Reid. “But what reason would they be going there if his probation officer can’t get a warrant for him?”
After News 6 told Reid about Nelson’s new role as the pastor of an online LGBT church, she expressed concern that others might be scammed.
“This is what he is going to do to the LGBT community,” said Reid. “I hope his probation officer will get on top of this and stop him.”