Lee Garner acquitted

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Louisiana case helped overturn bribery verdict

By Billy Davis

Lee Garner, the wealthy Panola County businessmen who was convicted of bribery in March, learned last week he was acquitted when a federal judge ruled in his favor.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers on August 23 acquitted Garner of all federal counts and also benefitted co-defendant Ray Shoemaker on some counts.

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Their nine-day jury trial in Oxford ended with guilty verdicts, with Garner facing a maximum 25 years in prison and Shoemaker facing as many as 80 years.     

Yet the attorneys never stopped working for their clients, and last week Garner’s attorneys won his acquittal five months after the federal jury announced its verdict.

Shoemaker, who still faces other charges, was acquitted of all counts related to Garner.

The two defendants employed enough attorneys to field a baseball team. Five attorneys represented Garner at trial and Shoemaker was represented by four, including well-known Ashland attorney Steve Farese.

A ‘non-agent’ in St. Helens

But it was a convicted county tax assessor from Louisiana, Chaney Phillips, who also helped defense attorneys win their appeal.

In 1999 the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans won its case against Phillips, who by then had been elected sheriff of the parish.

Jurors convicted Phillips of bribery, money laundering, perjury, kickbacks and more — 21 counts in all related to his relationship with a political ally according to court documents.

After the trial, attorneys for Phillips argued that the U.S. government had failed to prove Phillips was acting as an agent of county government in St. Helens Parish, which was required to win a conviction.

The argument proved successful and Phillips’s conviction was overturned due to that technicality.

Chandler not ‘agent’ of hospital

U.S. attorneys in Oxford used the same federal language to prosecute Garner and Shoemaker, alleging David Chandler, the former county administrator, was acting as an agent for Tri-Lakes Medical Center.

The federal case alleged Chandler used his public roles to act as a middleman between Garner’s Guardian Angel nurse staffing service and Shoemaker, who was chief operations officer at the hospital.

Chandler worked part time for Garner as an accountant, and was paid $5 for every hour that a Guardian nurse was billed at the hospital.

Chandler’s payment from Guardian totaled approximately $268,000 over two years, which was his “kickback” from Garner, prosecutors alleged.

“The government argues on this point that merely because Chandler was a board member of the hospital and an employee of the county which owned the hospital, that the requirements of the statute are fulfilled,” Biggers wrote in his Memorandum Opinion.

But, the judge ruled, the U.S. government had failed to do so.

The requirements were not fulfilled, because Chandler was not an employee of the Batesville hospital, Biggers wrote, citing Phillips vs. United States to prove his point.

Further in his ruling the judge added, “Chandler was not shown to have any authority to act on behalf of the hospital in determining which nursing services providers would be called to supply temporary nursing services.”

Biggers noted in his opinion that Phillips vs. United States had been heard and upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

If the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford appeals Biggers’ ruling for acquittals, that appeal would also be heard by the 5th Circuit.

FBI ‘misstatements’

Also in his Memorandum Opinion, Biggers took exception that the U.S. government withheld some documents from discovery until the trial started.

The federal judge also noted that an FBI agent had made “serious misstatements of fact” to the grand jury that were proven false during the trial. That same agent had questioned Garner after his indictment and told he was not under investigation, Biggers noted.

Conspiracy ‘not met’

Among Biggers’ other findings in his Opinion, prosecutors failed to prove a conspiracy among Garner, Shoemaker and Chandler at a 2005 dinner at Como Steakhouse.

Chandler was not present during a portion of that meeting and the only evidence of a conspiracy came from him, Biggers wrote. So the “necessary evidence” of a conspiracy “was simply not met,” he stated.

The judge also cited secret recordings made by Chandler in which Garner did not admit to any deal with Shoemaker.

Biggers had denied separate trials for Garner and Shoemaker, and in his Opinion he questioned whether defense attorneys’ motion to sever the defendants should have been granted.