ORLANDO, Fla. – A convicted con man admitted that he lied to his probation officer about his role in a Winter Park law firm while he was on supervised release from federal prison.
Michael Anthony Nelson, 45, could have been sent back to prison for as many as three years if a judge found he violated several conditions of release.
However, under a plea agreement offered by federal prosecutors, Nelson could be released from custody in November. A federal judge must formally issue the sentence during a separate court hearing scheduled for next month.
"Oh, I'm mad. I'm really mad," said Suzanne Brown, expressing frustration that Nelson could soon be back on the street.
Brown and her husband claim they paid Nelson more than $50,000 thinking he was an attorney.
Nelson, who is not a lawyer, did not provide any legal services, the Browns told News 6.
"Somebody like this needs to spend time in prison permanently so he won't hurt other individuals," Matt Brown said.
Con man opens Winter Park 'law firm'
Nelson spent more than 15 of the past 17 years in federal prison for bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud and aggravated identity theft, court records show.
After convictions in Central Florida, California and Illinois, judges have ordered Nelson to repay fraud victims more than $1.5 million.
“Mr. Nelson is a serial con man who we don’t believe can be deterred,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Drury said following Nelson's conviction for defrauding Chicago churches in 2010.
After his most recent release from federal custody in April 2016, Nelson was placed under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office.
While on supervised release, Nelson began operating a business in Winter Park called Marsha Ward and Team Ombudsman, a News 6 investigation revealed. The company advertised itself as a "law firm."
"He swindled me. He swindled other people," Marsha Ward told News 6.
Ward said 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,” Ward said. “My cousin told me he was an attorney.”
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.
Ward, who lives in Texas, took out a lease for office space in the Winter Park building and purchased office equipment for Nelson, she said.
Even though her name was on the door, Ward insists Nelson ran the firm.
Nelson arrested for violating probation
In March 2017, weeks after News 6 began reporting on Nelson's firm, U.S. Marshals arrested him for allegedly violating the terms of his supervised release.
Senior Probation Officer Julio Dominguez said Nelson provided several untruthful statements about his involvement with the company.
“(Nelson) said he does not take payments (from clients),” Dominguez testified. “We recently discovered, based on bank records, he deposited funds into his personal accounts."
Besides accepting checks from clients totaling $6,500, Nelson also allegedly deposited a $4,000 "bonus payment" from the firm into his bank account without notifying his probation officer.
“This is important because he owes restitution (to past victims),” Dominguez said.
In addition to his work with the law firm, News 6 discovered Nelson also failed to tell his probation officer about a questionable church he was operating from his mother's Orlando home.
Even though Nelson solicited donations for his religious organization online, probation officials could find no evidence that he improperly raised any money for his church.
Prosecutors offer Nelson a plea deal
As several of Nelson's alleged victims sat outside a federal courtroom Thursday prepared to testify about their experiences with the law firm, Nelson announced he would accept a plea offer.
In exchange for admitting that he provided false information to his probation officer, prosecutors said they would recommend a sentence of eight months.
Since Nelson has already been in federal custody for five months, he could be released after serving three additional months, prosecutors indicated.
"It sucks. It's wrong," Ward said after learning about the plea agreement. "The government just did not handle it right."
"We understand the victims' frustration," said William C. Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Middle District of Florida. "Mr. Nelson's eleventh-hour decision to admit to the violations on the terms that the government offered several weeks ago made it unnecessary for their testimony at the hearing."
Daniels said Nelson's recommended sentence falls within advisory guidelines and that there was no guarantee he would have received the maximum punishment.
"Had the government prevailed on all of the violations, which was uncertain, the court may have imposed the same sentence," Daniels said.
Nelson requests transfer to halfway house
Under the proposed plea deal, Nelson could serve out the final months of his sentence at a federal halfway house in Orlando, instead of the Seminole County jail where he is currently incarcerated.
While Nelson was living at the same Orlando halfway house prior to his release from custody in April 2016, several alleged victims claim Nelson was already posing as a lawyer who worked for the firm of Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman.
When Ella Reid visited the facility in March 2016 to find employees for her small janitorial business, she overheard Nelson giving legal advice to an inmate.
"(Nelson) told me he was an attorney," said Reid, who claims the convicted con man later scammed her out of nearly $10,000.
In 2003, while Nelson was living at an Orlando halfway house following one of his early fraud convictions, a News 6 investigation revealed that Nelson was leaving the facility during the day to operate a fraudulent law firm.
Following that News 6 report, federal agents returned Nelson to maximum security custody.
Nelson's alleged victims worry he will begin committing new fraud while living at the halfway house, or shortly after he is released.
"He's going to find some sucker and do it all over again. I know he will," said Suzanne Brown.
"He's a habitual," Ward added. "But he'll learn from his mistakes this time. And then he's going to do it a little different next time."