Joseph S. Forte, who in September told investors he had grown their money to $154 million, but now stands accused of running a Ponzi scheme, appeared alone in federal court today because he has no money for a lawyer.

"I'm trying to raise the money," Forte told Magistrate Judge Faith Angell. She granted him a one-week continuance, pushing the preliminary hearing back to Monday.

Before the hearing, Forte, 53, who has a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard, hair of the same color, and small, dark eyes, leaned forward on a courtroom bench with his hands together as if in prayer and his thumbs under his chin.

After the brief courtroom appearance, Forte spoke publicly - against the advice of lawyers, he said - for the first time since the collapse of the fund he started in 1995.

He said all the money he raised was gone, most of it back to investors. The numbers in the civil and criminal complaints filed against him this month, including the $50 million put into the fund by investors, were estimates.

"It could turn out to be something different," said Forte, whose purported success as a money manager won him spots on the boards of Hill Top Preparatory School (whose endowment he managed) and Malvern Preparatory School.

Forte, who stands more than 6 feet tall and walks with a slight limp he attributed to a "dead foot," said people close to him, including his wife and John Irwin, the accountant who helped him set up and administer the fund, had no idea of his fraud.

"John is just a great guy. He had absolutely no blame in this whatsoever," Forte said.

Experts say that Ponzi schemes, such as Forte's, typically start out legitimate, but then go awry. That is what Forte claimed: "I made a mistake years ago and wanted to work my way out of it."

Instead, he dragged down nearly 80 investors, leaving some in dire financial shape.

Forte said of his family now: "We're trying to get money just to live on."

Forte said family members are trying to get loans to pay a lawyer. Forte said Joseph M. Fioravanti of Media, formerly with the U.S. Attorney's Office, would represent him if he raised the money. "I don't have the funds yet," Forte said.

Fioravanti declined to discuss the matter.

Last week, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia filed a mail-fraud charge against Forte that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.