Featured Story – Garner verdict

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Federal judge throws out Garner’s guilty verdict

By Billy Davis

A federal judge in Oxford has thrown out all guilty verdicts against Batesville businessman Lee Garner and some counts against co-defendant Ray Shoemaker.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal of Tupelo broke the news late Thursday following the order from U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers.

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Garner and Shoemaker were convicted by a federal jury in March of a bribery and kickback scheme to boost Garner’s nurse staffing business at Tri-Lakes Medical Center, where Shoemaker was employed.

Biggers wrote that the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrongly claimed Garner was involved in a bribery scandal with David Chandler, the former Panola County administrator, because Chandler was in no position to make staffing decisions that favored Garner, the Tupelo newspaper reported.

The Daily Journal pointed out, however, that Chandler was chairman of the hospital board at the time.

The former county administrator, already under investigation by the FBI, confessed to the bribery scheme and testified against Garner and Shoemaker as part of a plea deal.

Chandler is now awaiting sentencing on two unrelated counts after pleading guilty last December.

During the week-long trial, federal prosecutors showed jurors checks written to Chandler from Guardian Angel Nursing that totaled $268,000 over two years. Chandler testified he was paid $5 for every hour that was billed to Tri-Lakes for lobbying Shoemaker to increase the nursing hours.

Attorneys for Garner claimed in court that there was no spike in nursing hours at the time, and Tri-Lakes employees testified they were not told to use Guardian nurses.

Federal prosecutors played audio of Garner asking Chandler if the businessman would be suspected of bribery for his payments to Chandler. Chandler secretly recorded the conversation for the FBI.   

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford can appeal Biggers’ decisions to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Journal reported.

In addition to vacating Garner’s four counts, Biggers vacated two of Shoemaker’s 10 guilty verdicts. He also granted them new trials on these counts, plus one more for Shoemaker, the Journal reported.

 Shoemaker, former CEO of a Tupelo-based rural health care management company, still faces sentencing on seven counts left standing. He faces substantial prison time and financial penalties.

Look for more information in the Tuesday, August 28 issue of The Panolian.