The Southern Standard, by Duane Sherrill —
A federal jury Friday acquitted local real estate appraiser Jimmy Passons, who was accused of inflating the value of a lumber mill sold by state Sen. Jerry Cooper.
The not-guilty verdict on the charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and fraud conspiracy against Passons, 61, came a day after the jury of eight women and four men began deliberations at the U.S. District Courthouse in Chattanooga.
Passons testified he never intended to defraud anybody when he prepared an inflated appraisal of a lumber mill owned by Sen. Cooper that made it appear the property included a railroad spur that was never built.
“My error was in trusting Jerry Cooper,” Passons testified.
He told jurors Cooper, a Smartt Station resident and 22-year state senator, assured him the 1998 appraisal would only be used to show the value of the property with the spur.
Cooper, who as the property owner was identified as an unindicted coconspirator in the indictment against Passons, refused to testify. His attorney says prosecutors have identified him as a possible target.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble had told jurors the case centered on a borrowing scheme that included Cooper seeking favors from Lt. Gov. John Wilder and a former economic development commissioner, Bill Baxter.
A Huntsville, Ala., couple indicted with Passons pleaded guilty Monday to charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.
The acquittal, according to Passons’ attorney Michael Galligan, could mean prosecutors may have trouble should they seek an indictment against Cooper.
“I have my doubts as to any success prosecutors would have in trying to prosecute Sen. Cooper or Lt. Gov. Wilder given the outcome of Mr. Passons’ trial,” Galligan said. “This should certainly give prosecutors a lot of concern about moving forward.”
Galligan said in the case of his client, justice was done since Mr. Passons never broke, nor intended to break, any law.
“Jimmy Passons testified he had never cheated anyone,” Galligan said. “When he did his report he thought it would be used properly. He had no intent to harm anybody.”
Galligan also praised his legal team and supporters of Passons who traveled to the federal courthouse in Chattanooga daily to sit in the gallery in support.
“Justice was served,” said local resident Pat Bronk who attended the trial in support of her friend. “Jimmy was innocent from the beginning. We never doubted that.”
Bronk was among 20 to 30 Warren countians, many from Passons’ church, who made the daily trip, some aboard a church bus.