From our media partners at Sun Sentinel:
An investment adviser pleaded guilty Wednesday to running a multi-million dollar investment fraud that preyed on members of the Wilton Manors gay community, abruptly ending his federal trial.
George Elia's surprising admission came on the third day of his trial for running what prosecutors described as a nearly $10 million Ponzi scheme. The Fort Lauderdale man pleaded guilty to all 10 fraud-related charges he faced for the swindle that cost some of his 40 investors their life's savings.
Elia, 69, decided to change his plea after the lunch break, having listened to the testimony of four of his victims and knowing that more were slated to take the witness stand. A few of his victims watched as the man they once considered a financial whiz and their friend stood and admitted to seven years of lies.
"Any hope for a future for George Elia left the building today and that feels very good," said Michael Imbesi, a California man who's part of a group of investors who filed a $4 million lawsuit against Elia. "He can take off his tie and put on his orange jumpsuit."
Elia is set to be sentenced May 14 by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams. Nine of the fraud charges each can carry up to 20 years in prison.
Elia will be contesting the amount of money lost by investors, said his attorney, Stephen H. Rosen. That dollar figure could factor into the length of Elia's prison sentence.
Rosen said he couldn't comment on Elia's decision to switch his plea from not guilty in mid-trial.
Many of Elia's victims came from the Wilton Manors gay community, lured into investing by Elia's accomplice, James F. "Jim" Ellis. Ellis, a well-known figure on the local nightlife scene, pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to commit fraud, admitting he helped convince people to fall for Elia's lies.
Ellis, who testified against Elia, faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced April 12.
Prosecutors accused Elia of using investors' money to fund his comfortable lifestyle complete with high-end cars and trips. Ellis, 69, admitted pocketing about $2.9 million.
Elia and Ellis still face two investor lawsuits, one filed by Imbesi and his family and another by a group of 14 people mostly from Wilton Manors. It's unclear whether the investors will be able to recover any money, said Daniel DeSouza, an attorney for the Wilton Manors group.
"Everything we have heard has suggested that these guys blew through the money or hid it somewhere," DeSouza said. He said he's exploring whether there are claims that could be filed against other people who may have benefited from the scheme.