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Feds Put Lien On Property Assessor's Home

Posted: Updated: Feb 6, 2013 08:39 AM

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - The United States Attorney's Office has put a lien on the home of former Putnam County Property Assessor, Rhonda Chaffin.  

The lien suggests criminal charges are a real possibility.  

NewsChannel 5 Investigates first raised questions about how Chaffin came to own her home, and why her office undervalued hundreds of properties while she was property assessor.

Rhonda Chaffin can still live in her Cookeville home, but the lien, which was filed with the Putnam County Register of Deeds, prevents her from selling it.

"That's a serious thing to put a lien on somebody's house.  They are not going to this frivolously and they are ready to move," said defense attorney David Raybin.

Raybin says the government is required to indicate what laws may have been violated.  

In this case the lien lists mail fraud, wire fraud and federal program fraud.  

All are often used in public corruption cases, perhaps telegraphing prosecutors future plans.

"This is not a telegraph, this is a fed ex," Raybin said.  "This is coming at you much quicker and louder than a telegraph."

Chaffin admitted to us in August that the developer who sold her the home provided her an $85,000 loan, that she claims was paid off two years later.

"They helped me for a few months until I got my house sold and got my loan," Chaffin said.  "They would have done that with anybody."

Chaffin bought the house from developer Shirley Gaw.  

We discovered that Chaffin had massively depreciated some of his properties -- meaning he paid thousands less in property taxes.  

The state found Chaffin's office undervalued nine of Shirley Gaw's properties by approximately $9.5 million over three years.

That includes Gaw's 7000 square foot, home undervalued by more than $38,000 a year according to the state.

And Gaw's Chelsea Place Apartments, which auditors say Chaffin undervalued by nearly $2.5 million each year since 2009.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You're saying there is nothing wrong with these depreciations?"

"No, there's nothing wrong with any of them," Chaffin responded last August.

Chaffin has denied doing anything wrong, but Raybin says the lien which reads "The United States anticipates bringing criminal and/or civil forfeiture proceedings" speaks for itself.

"The mountain has moved," Raybin said.  "The government clearly has been investigating this for quite some time, and they will do a thorough investigation in this kind of thing and when they do move, they move decisively."

Developer Shirley Gaw has appealed the state's ruling that he underpaid property taxes.  

Chaffin and her attorney did not return our phone calls.

The state Comptroller's Office has determined that 19 additional properties were undervalued while Chaffin was in office. 

It brings to the total of undervalued properties to more than 200.

The county has sent back tax notices telling the 19 property owners they owe more in property taxes.

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