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GUILTY! Alabama Couple Admits to Federal Charges

(Story created: 4/3/06)

An Alabama couple pleaded guilty on the eve of a federal trial on charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy Monday, with attorneys saying privately the government's real target in the case is an unindicted coconspirator: state Sen. Jerry Cooper.

It all involves a land deal first exposed by a NewsChannel 5 investigation.

Anthony C. Auyer of Huntsville, Ala., pleaded guilty Monday and minutes later his wife, Teresa R. Auyer, entered a guilty plea before U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar.

Their pleas left real estate appraiser James Passons of McMinnville as the lone defendant going to trial Tuesday on charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.

Cooper's attorney, Jerry Summers, has said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble identified Cooper, a Democratic legislator from Smartt, as a "potential target" in the ongoing investigation.

Summers last week said he advised Cooper, who is not charged, to refuse subpoenas to testify. Cooper has said he did not do anything wrong.

Defense attorneys have also said out of court that Cooper was the real target of the government's case, which also involves a state loan to the Auyers' company.

The Auyers' lawyers told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that their clients are willing to testify if necessary.

"At this point we haven't been contacted by the government, but Mr. Auyer will be 100 percent truthful," said Anthony Auyer's attorney, Lee Davis.

The indictment accuses Passons of preparing an inflated appraisal for the mill property on April 14, 1998. Cooper then sold the property to Auyer, with a commitment from the state Department of Economic and Community Development that a grant would be issued to Auyer to build the rail spur, records show.

State officials said the spur was never built.

Passon's attorney, Michael Galligan of McMinnville, has said that his client prepared a misleading appraisal at Cooper's request.

The indictment in the case contends the unindicted coconspirator "used his political contacts, connections and influence" to help Anthony Auyer obtain a $1.77 million federally insured loan from BankTennessee to purchase lumber mill property that Cooper owned in Warren County.

The indictment also contends the Auyers fraudulently obtained equipment loans totaling about $409,000 from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Passons' attorney said his client would be going to trial.

A legislative subcommittee decided Cooper did not use his influence as a lawmaker in a $292,255 Tennessee Industrial Infrastructure Program grant and $500,000 Community Development Block Grant loan obtained for a Warren County lumber mill he owned.

Humble has said in recent court filings that the investigation could lead to charges against "other criminal participants."

Humble declined to discuss Cooper but said the term unindicted co-conspirator generally "means the Department of Justice won't let us put his name in the indictment."

"Sometimes there are evidentiary issues that preclude you from indicting everybody in one case," Humble said. He also said naming an unindicted coconspirator in a case is sometimes aimed at trying to get cooperation. (copyright 2006 The Associated Press.)

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