The Chattanoogan —
A Federal Court jury on Friday morning found McMinnville appraiser James Passons not guilty on all charges involving a loan that allowed Sen. Jerry Cooper to sell a failing lumber mill.
The jury deliberated all day Thursday and two more hours on Friday before making the finding on charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.
The defendant had been charged with putting on an appraisal that the lumber mill had a rail spur to it. He said he did so because Sen. Cooper told him a state grant to build the spur was a sure thing and the appraisal would not be shown to anyone until it was built.
Sen. Cooper, who is from Smartt, Tn., has not been charged in the case. He was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.
The couple who got the loan, Tony and Teresa Auyer, pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
A number of Passons family members and friends were ecstatic after the verdict. They held hands just outside the courtroom as a minister prayed, saying, “Lord, I feel like we are on holy ground now.”
Attorney Mike Galligan of McMinnville said the 61-year-old Passons “feels let down” by Sen. Cooper.
The attorney said, “He (Cooper) could have come in and testified to what really happened, but he didn’t. I can understand that from a legal standpoint because he may be concerned about facing charges, but from a human standpoint I don’t understand it.”
Attorney Galligan said Mr. Passons has always cooperated with the government in the case and will continue to do so.
The $1.77 million loan was made through a bank at Collierville in West Tennessee. Witnesses said Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who is chairman of the board of the bank’s holding company, made several calls concerning the loan, saying he wanted to help out his friend, Sen. Cooper.
Only one payment was ever made on the loan, which was insured 80 percent by the federal Department of Agriculture.