David Chandler testifies

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 24, 2012

Attorneys grill ex-administrator,  claim saving self

By Billy Davis

The federal government unsealed a 26-count indictment against David Chandler late Wednesday, which defense attorneys seized upon to claim the former county administrator is lying to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

Chandler was on the witness stand for a second day Wednesday when Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Spillers concluded his questioning shortly before noon.

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During the second morning of the federal trial, the prosecution played secretly taped recordings between Chandler and defendants Lee Garner and Ray Shoemaker.

Shoemaker was recorded denying to Chandler that $12,000 Chandler paid him was a bribe while Garner was recorded asking Chandler if he was recording their conversation for federal authorities.

After the trial resumed about 1:30, defense attorneys Steve Farese and Ronald Michael took turns grilling Chandler throughout the afternoon.

“By our calculations you were looking at a maximum of 325 years on 26 counts,” Michael, referencing the unsealed indictment, told Chandler as cross-examining wound down Wednesday.

The indictment details Chandler’s creation of a company, Absolute Recovery, in 2007. Chandler did not disclose the business was his own when it was hired by the then-Panola County Board of Supervisors to collect delinquent garbage fees for the Solid Waste department.

Checks from Panola County were mailed to a post office box in Greenwood, and each deposit is considered one count of mail fraud and money laundering according to the indictment.

Using a public job for private financial gain is illegal under Mississippi law.  

Despite obvious attempts to cover his tracks, Chandler testified Wednesday that he didn’t know at the time that it was illegal to open the business. “But I know that now,” he said.  

Five years later, Chandler is the government’s key witness in a fraud and bribery investigation, which alleges he conspired with businessman Garner and Shoemaker, a former Tri-Lakes executive.

A team of defense attorneys for Garner and Shoemaker, meanwhile, are putting another narrative in front of jurors: to save his own skin, Chandler dreamed up allegations of a kickback scheme against Garner and Shoemaker, which would mean Chandler also lied to the federal government during their investigation.

“Do you lie?” Farese asked Chandler on Wednesday.

“I have in the past,” Chandler said.

“Are you a thief?” asked Farese.

“I have stole before,” Chandler replied.

Federal investigators were confronting Chandler about Absolute Recovery, ineligible overtime and other alleged misdeeds when he apparently told them he was paid a kickback from Garner for pressuring Shoemaker to increase nursing hours for Garner’s nurse staffing business.

Chandler’s testimony on Wednesday revealed he held his first meeting with federal authorities, an FBI agent and an investigator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on February 3, 2010.

Chandler claims Guardian Angel and later On-Call Staffing paid him $5 for every nursing hour that was billed to Tri-Lakes, which federal authorities allege totaled $268,000 over three years.

Federal prosecutors submitted checks paid to Chandler — the highest was $28,000, paid in 2005 from Guardian Angel — as the U.S. government’s first evidence in the trial.

Chandler also claims Shoemaker was paid $12,000 by him toward a $25,000 kickback, which defense attorneys have said was a living expense loan to keep Shoemaker, who is from Tupelo, in Batesville.

Chandler also told federal investigators about a bribery scheme with Batesville physician Robert Corkern.

Corkern has pleaded guilty in federal court to paying Chandler $25,000 in exchange for $400,000 in county funds that were transferred to Tri-Lakes.

In a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Chandler has pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement and a single count of bank fraud.

At one point Chandler testified Wednesday he is facing 21 to 27 months in prison after cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Garner and Shoemaker, meanwhile, are facing a maximum 25 and 80 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

The former county administrator repeatedly admitted Wednesday he had lied to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office early in their investigations, but said he was now giving truthful testimony.

When pressed by Farese, Chandler admitted he convinced his wife to lie to FBI agents when they were investigating a kickback scheme with an insurance agent, Richard Edgerton.

“You did it to protect yourself, yes or no?” Farese asked.

“Yes,” Chandler replied.

Michael, who is representing Garner, stated Wednesday that Chandler had failed to mention the alleged kickback scheme with Garner and Shoemaker when he made two statements to federal investigators.

“You can’t explain that, can you?” Michael asked.

“No sir, I cannot,” Chandler replied.

After mentioning Chandler’s various schemes in opening statements Tuesday, defense attorneys took turns reminding the jury about them Wednesday: creating the Absolute Recovery company; pocketing a kickback from construction work on county buildings; billing the county for ineligible overtime pay; and demanding kickbacks from people who did business with the county.

Regarding overtime pay, Michael asked Chandler if he was aware he wasn’t entitled to overtime pay as a salaried employee.

“I’m not sure,” Chandler replied.

“You were a former state auditor,” Michaels shot back.    

Michael added another possible scheme Wednesday, reminding Chandler that he had sold his home in the Edgarwoods subdivision south of Batesville to Roland Butler for $40,000.

Panola Countains are familiar with Butler, who promised the Board of Supervisors in 2006 he would open a food manufacturing plant in Crenshaw if Panola County gave him the building and adjoining land.

Michael pointed out Wednesday that Butler used the building and acreage as collateral to take out a multi-million dollar loan.

“What county goes around giving a building away?” Michael asked Chandler.

“I advised them not to do it,” Chandler said of the then-Board of Supervisors, though at the time he in fact publicly urged supervisors to sign a deal with Butler.

Chandler and his wife are still listed as the owners of the brick home at 7 Edgarwood Road, which is appraised at $178,408 according to county tax records.

In sort of a warm-up for what was coming, Farese had lambasted Chandler on Tuesday, telling the federal jury the former administrator can’t be trusted.

“David Chandler is the most despicable person you’ll ever see,” Farese said in opening statements.

Defense attorney John Ferrell, one of five attorneys representing Garner, described Chandler as an “embezzler,” a “thief” and a “scumbag,” when he followed Farese on Tuesday.

The federal criminal trial is scheduled for three weeks on the court calendar.