By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Questions remain about how federal jury verdicts against two high-profile businessmen wound up thrown out by the presiding judge.
Even the judge questions behavior by prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford.
Christi R. McCoy of Oxford, one of the defense attorneys, said Friday that the government, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture “all decided to believe” their star witness, David Chandler, over her client, Lee Garner, “even knowing Chandler was a liar and a crook.”
Lee Garner of Batesville and Ray Shoemaker of Tupelo were convicted last March in a kickback-bribery scheme arising from Tri-Lakes Medical Center in Batesville.
Shoemaker was a top executive at the hospital and Garner operated nurse staffing services, which did business with the hospital.
David Chandler was Panola County’s administrator and the hospital board president for most of the time in question.
Thursday, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. threw out all four guilty verdicts against Garner and two against Shoemaker alleging a conspiracy to profit from beefed-up business for Garner.
Garner was accused of an illegal agreement for Chandler to receive $5 per nursing hour Garner was billed in exchange for Chandler’s influence to ensure it was paid in a timely manner.
Garner’s side insisted it was nothing more than a business deal, while the government claimed it was a bribe that padded Garner’s fees to the hospital.
To prove their guilt on three counts, the government had to show that Chandler “was an agent” in a position to influence business at Tri-Lakes.
Biggers said Chandler was not an agent and that no evidence ever showed Garner padded any bills to the hospital.
The government also claimed Garner offered Shoemaker $25,000 to influence additional nursing services, and the jury agreed.
But Biggers threw that verdict out, saying Chandler never heard any such conversation between the men and no other evidence was introduced to prove it.
John Marshall Alexander, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division, declined to comment on questions about Biggers’ decisions or whether they will be appealed.
Neither he nor the FBI on Friday would comment on Biggers’ characterization of a leading prosecution witness – FBI investigator Shannon Wright.
Biggers said she lied to the grand jury about Garner’s padding fees to the hospital and that no federal investigator ever questioned anyone at Tri-Lakes with decision-making authority about nurse staffing.
While Biggers chose to avoid discussion about other issues, he notes that Garner’s attorneys claim evidence was withheld from them until the trial began. They also claim government agents, including Wright, improperly questioned Garner after an indictment was drawn up against him without telling him he was a target, even telling him he was not a target.
In Jackson, FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden referred all questions about Wright or the government’s investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Biggers granted Shoemaker a new trial on the charge his client solicited money from Chandler to influence nursing hours and timely payments for Garner’s company.
But he left standing jury convictions on seven other counts for which Shoemaker faces heavy prison time and fines.
Steve Farese Sr. of Ashland, one of Shoemaker’s attorneys, said Friday they will file appeals after he is sentenced. No date is set yet.
But in Biggers’ Thursday order memorandum, the judge said he found “no adverse error” that affected Shoemaker’s rights, which means no new trial on those counts.
Ronald Michael of Booneville, another of Garner’s attorneys, said Friday that the judge’s order “certainly confirms our belief that misrepresentations of fact prejudiced the grand jury against our client.”
The government’s case against Garner, Michael assessed, “was David Chandler, and we never believed him.”
In what might seem an odd twist, Biggers tossed out the various verdicts against Garner and Shoemaker but granted them new trials on all of them, plus one more for Shoemaker, which he did not vacate.
Courthouse observers say the move might have been taken to allow a new look at the charges, if the 5th Circuit overrules any of his decisions on government appeals.
They also say Biggers’ decision to overturn jury verdicts is rare.
Chandler and Garner-Shoemaker co-defendant Dr. Robert Corkern of Batesville, who cut deals with prosecutors to avoid trials, still face sentences on their admissions.
Corkern admitted he bribed Chandler for access to $200,000 public money to use as part of his $500,000 earnest money deposit to buy Tri-Lakes in 2005.
Chandler admitted to embezzlement and fraud while he was county administrator.
Late Thursday, Garner’s legal team filed a motion with the court to return his passport and $5,000 paid on his bond.