By Brian Lazenby
During opening statements today in the federal trial of a real estate appraiser accused of illegally inflating the value of property owned by state Sen. Jerry Cooper, the prosecutor said multiple state officials pulled strings to get loans approved.
James B. Passons is charged with bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud after falsely claiming that a lumber mill Sen. Cooper, D-Smartt, was attempting to sell, contained a railroad spur.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said Sen. Cooper made phone calls to Lt. Gov. John Wilder, D-Mason, and Bill Baxter, a former Tennessee Economic and Community Development commissioner, to help get loans approved based on the fraudulent appraisal for Anthony Auyer, who was attempting to purchase the property.
Lt. Gov. Wilder, who sits on the board of trustees of Bank Tennessee in Collierville, Tenn., called a loan officer who had previously recommended that the loan be denied, and urged him to approve the $1.7 million loan, Mr. Humble said.
Mr. Baxter urged the Department of Economic and Community Development to approve a $485,000 loan from the department for Mr. Auyer to purchase equipment, the prosecutor said.
Mr. Auyer and his wife, Theresa Rikard Auyer, on Monday pleaded guilty to multiple fraud and money laundering charges. They and are scheduled to be sentenced in July.
Attorneys for the Auyers said their clients are willing to testify at the trial if necessary.
Defense lawyer Michael Galligan, who represents Mr. Passons, said his client trusted Sen. Cooper, who said the rail spur would be built and promised Mr. Passons that the appraisal would not be used until after the rail road spur was completed.
See tomorrows Chattanooga Times Free Press for full coverage.
E-mail Brian Lazenby at email@example.com