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Convictions a likelihood in Fair Finance case

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Defense attorneys representing indicted businessman Tim Durham and two other executives tied to bankrupt Fair Finance Co. could have a hard time convincing a jury of their innocence.

A 23-page indictment, unsealed March 16, alleges that Durham, 48, and business partner James F. Cochran, 55, worked with former Fair Chief Financial Officer Rick D. Snow, 47, to devise and execute a scheme to defraud investors in the Akron, Ohio-based company.

Authorities say Fair Finance owes 5,200 investors $230 million. Officials call it the largest corporate fraud case in Indiana’s history.

Prosecutors worked for more than a year to piece together the complex case and present it to a grand jury, said Timothy M. Morrison, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.

“We have to get this right,” he said. “You have to prove it to 12 people without a reasonable doubt. Now we look forward to proving the allegations.”

The odds are with the government. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 94.1 percent of federal prosecutors’ cases resolved in 2009 ended with a conviction, and 96 percent of those convicted pleaded guilty before or during their trial. Of those convicted, 81 percent were sentenced to prison.

Federal prosecutors in Indianapolis will lead the case against the three, who are set to be tried May 16.

The Southern District doesn’t track conviction rates. But prosecutors typically build a solid case before bringing charges, which improves their chances for a favorable outcome, said Indianapolis attorney Dick Kiefer, who leads Bingham McHale’s white-collar criminal practice.

Kiefer represents Durham’s Indianapolis-based Obsidian Enterprises Inc., one of the primary beneficiaries of loans Fair Finance made from investors’ money to Durham, Cochran, and other insiders, according to the indictment.

Kiefer declined to comment on the specific charges, but he provided insight into the Southern District Court’s overall approach to prosecutions.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office here, in particular, has generally been very conservative over the years in charging cases, and I think that’s to their credit,” he said. “They tend to file cases that are much stronger, but that doesn’t mean they’re always right.”

The Southern District’s conservative nature might explain why it took 16 months after an FBI raid for investigators to announce charges against the men.

All three are facing felony charges: 10 counts of wire fraud, one count of securities fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and securities fraud.

Each faces a maximum of five years in prison for the conspiracy charge, 20 years in prison for each wire fraud count, and 20 years in prison for the securities fraud. In addition, each could be fined $250,000 for each count on which they are convicted.

Misleading investors

Charges stem from a lengthy FBI investigation that made headlines in November 2009 when agents raided Obsidian’s offices in Indianapolis and Fair’s Akron headquarters.

Two weeks earlier, according to the indictment, Durham and Cochran had telephone conversations that painted a striking picture of their alleged deceit.

Cochran allegedly told Durham that they needed to retain Fair’s employees, regardless of their competence, because “these guys know a little bit too much. They can take it and bust us.”

“We can’t [let them go],” Durham agreed. “We’ve got to get through this.”

A few days later, the indictment says, they had another phone conversation, discussing an accounting strategy to make millions of dollars of “bad debt loans” they otherwise would need to disclose to Ohio regulators “literally disappear.”

And about a week before the FBI raid, they allegedly schemed to give a false and misleading explanation to an investor about why he could not redeem an investment certificate.

Later the same day, Cochran told Durham he thought he succeeded at heading off the investor, according to the indictment.

Responded Durham: “You are the best at this.”

Durham, in yet another instance involving an investor, instructed Cochran to “use the same reason you used yesterday with the other guy,” according to the indictment, but cautioned him not to use it too often “because it’s really not true.”

Five days later, on Nov. 24, 2009, FBI agents conducted their raid on the offices of Obsidian and Fair, serving search warrants.

The raid came about a month after IBJ ran an investigative story about Fair highlighting the related-party loans, which amounted to $230 million by that time.

The company, meanwhile, owed investors more than $200 million and had only $24 million in consumer receivables – its only real source of revenue – on its books, according to the indictment.

Durham and Cochran bought the then-68-year-old business for $23 million in 2002, using almost entirely borrowed money.

They immediately began doling out related-party loans, adding to the debt load, while scaling back what had been Fair’s profit-making business – buying customer-finance contracts from fitness clubs, time-share developers and other firms that offered customers extended-payment plans.

Durham and Cochran allegedly sold off additional receivables over the years to pay off investors even as they used money from Fair Finance to pay for extravagances like a $250,000 garage remodeling project, a $150,000 gambling spree and $50,000 in country club dues.

Fair Finance was forced into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy in early 2010.

Last month, bankruptcy trustee Brian Bash filed a lawsuit that provided a preview of many of the government’s charges, alleging that Durham perpetrated fraud of “shocking proportions” by draining huge sums of money from the Ohio company over a period of years.

“Durham fired auditors who became too squeamish and operated [Fair] as a Ponzi scheme, enabling him to loot every last penny,” according to the sharply worded 49-page lawsuit filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Akron.

The indictment alleges that Durham essentially admitted as much in an October 2008 email exchange, saying he acknowledged that Fair used proceeds from the sale of new investment certificates to pay existing investors.

Durham also dismissed two outside auditors who raised questions about the insider loans, according to the indictment, before signing the financial statements himself to certify their accuracy.

Proving intent is key

The three men all were arrested March 16 at their homes – Durham in Los Angeles and Cochran and Snow in Indianapolis, Morrison said. Durham previously lived in a 10,700-square-foot home on Geist Reservoir that fell into foreclosure.

Cochran and Snow were released on their own recognizance following a March 16 initial hearing in Indianapolis before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kennard Foster. Durham was released from a federal detention center in California on a $1 million bond and has agreed to move to Indianapolis where he will be electronically monitored. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Indianapolis April 6.

Durham’s lawyer, famed criminal defense attorney Roy Black of Miami, did not return phone calls.

Key to securing convictions in fraud cases is proving whether the defendants knowingly intended to commit fraud, white-collar criminal defense lawyers said.

Because it’s difficult to prove what somebody actually was thinking, the government often relies on circumstantial evidence and expert testimony, said J.P. Hanlon, who leads Indianapolis-based Baker & Daniels’ white-collar practice group. He also teaches white-collar crime at the Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis.

“Ultimately, the jury is given the very challenging job of evaluating all of the evidence and deciding whether the defendant acted with a fraudulent purpose,” he said.

Still, the trail of loans Fair Finance left in its wake could prove most beneficial for prosecutors, said Indianapolis defense lawyer Richard Kammen.

“The one thing about money is, it’s generally traceable,” he said. “They’ve spent a lot of time figuring out where it went. And that is the reason the federal government is very successful. But every case stands on its own.”•

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This story was first published in the March 21-27, 2011, issue of Indianapolis Business Journal.

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  1. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  2. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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  4. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  5. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

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