The owners of Castle Builders Inc. and Union Agway abruptly closed their businesses in 2019, leaving customers out money and with unfinished projects. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

The former owner of a now defunct Union contracting business has pleaded not guilty to allegedly stealing nearly $500,000 from customers through deceptive business practices.

Malcolm Stewart, 56, appeared via videoconference in Knox County court Thursday morning for his arraignment on two charges of theft by deception. Stewart pleaded not guilty to both counts.

Stewart abruptly closed his Union-based business, Castle Builders, in September of 2019, leaving clients with unfinished projects that had already been paid and 22 employees out of work.

A Knox County grand jury indicted Stewart on the charges in March. Stewart, a Canadian citizen, has been living in South Carolina since leaving Maine in 2019.

The indictment alleges that Stewart had 57 customers pay deposits for home construction projects that he knew he did not have the capacity to complete.

The total amount of money Stewart gained through this process was more than $400,000. Despite receiving deposits from these customers, Stewart usually performed no work for the money, but in a few instances a minimal amount of work was started, according to the Maine attorney general’s office.

Stewart also received an advance $50,000 loan from two customers in December 2018. He allegedly told the customers he had “cash flow problems because customers were not paying him,” the attorney general’s office said in a release at the time of the indictment.

While he claimed to have the capacity to pay back the loan when the customers gave him money, Stewart never repaid the loan.

The judge presiding over the hearing denied Stewart’s request for a court appointed attorney because the court determined he did not financially qualify. Stewart’s bail was set at $50,000, which he will only have to pay if he fails to appear in court, according to a spokesperson for the Maine attorney general’s office.

Stewart appeared remotely from his home in South Carolina during Thursday’s hearing. While an arrest warrant was issued when he was indicted in March, Stewart was never taken into custody because state prosecutors and his attorney came to an agreement on bail.

The judge rescinded the outstanding warrant since new bail conditions were set Thursday. Because the warrant was recalled, Maine will only seek to extradite Stewart if he fails to appear in court.

Under his bail conditions, Stewart is barred from leaving his home state of South Carolina, unless he is requested to appear in person in Maine for court hearings.

A lawsuit filed by the Maine attorney general’s office against Stewart and his wife under the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Law in December 2019 is ongoing.