ALBANY, Ga. — Based on responses offered by each attorney after a Friday morning hearing, the courtroom showdown between former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges and his former chief assistant prosecutor, Chris Cohilas, ended in a dead heat.
Both Hodges, who along with Atlanta co-counsel Lauren Antonino is representing the Seasons Christan Care assisted living facility and its principals, William and Eric Eidenire, and Cohilas, who is representing nine current or former residents of the center and another client who contributed to the facility, claimed victory after a hearing in which Dougherty Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss was asked to grant a temporary restraining order against Seasons Christian and to name a receiver to run the business for 30 days.
Goss denied the request for the appointment of a receiver, but did order an audit of the accounts of the nine plaintiffs in the case: Sam and Euvida Spivey, Betty Odom, Helen Blackwell, the estate of Genevieve McDonald, Virginia Sanderson, JoAnn Yarborough, Sylvia Johnson, Ida Preston and Doris Bateman. Antinino’s objection to adding Bateman to the list of plaintiffs was overruled by Goss.
Goss gave the attorneys 14 days to decide on an accounting firm to do the audit and told them he would determine who pays for it after getting an estimate on the cost of the process.
“Georgia law allows the Superior Court to appoint a receiver, but it says such action should be ‘prudent and cautiously exercised,’ “ the judge said in his ruling. “State law also says such action should not be taken unless there is a clear-cut case of potentially irreversible harm. I don’t hear that today. I’m not saying this is not a legitimate claim, I just don’t see it as a case where a receiver is required.
“However, I do think this is an appropriate case for the court to order an accounting. I’m going to do so, but the question becomes who pays. I don’t want to unfairly infringe upon the rights of the residents who live at Seasons Christian who are not a part of this suit, but I don’t see how it’s fair to ask people who are contending their money was mismanaged to pay more for this process to continue.”
Cohilas said Goss’ ruling that Seasons Christian Care’s principles “open their books” is a clear victory for his clients.
“For the other side to claim victory today, I have to wonder what they missed about the importance of what just happened,” he said. “At the end of the day, Judge Goss required them to open their books. And they did not deny at any time that they were dealing in unregulated securities.
“Our affidavits on that matter speak for themselves, but I’d have to say (Seasons Christian’s) silence in that regard was deafening. We scored a clear victory today in resounding fashion, and I thank the court for granting relief for my clients.”
Hodges said the only victory the plaintiffs scored was that Seasons Christian was ordered to do what it had already offered to do.
“This was a complete victory for my clients,” he said. “They have nothing to hide, and they’ve repeatedly offered to open their financial books. The only people I feel bad for in this case are the other residents who are having to help pay for these frivolous lawsuits.
“(The plaintiffs) complain about the $400 (monthly) maintenance fees, but part of that money goes to pay for expensive litigation that is an unneccesary burden. Our position is that we want to pay everyone (who has claimed they’re owed money) back, but it’s become a Catch-22. The money that’s being used to defend their actions could go to paying them back.”
Asked how he felt about the outcome of the hearing, William Eidenire said, “I’m as happy as I can be, but I’m always happy.”
Cohilas called Bateman and Blackwell to the witness stand to testify about ministry deposit certificates each said she made to Seasons Christian. Both women said they were not receiving the return on the deposits they were promised.
“I wrote Eric (Eidenire) a letter and told him my CD would mature in 2008 to let him know that I would be needing the money so he could prepare to repay it,” said Bateman, who is not a Seasons Christian resident. “He said they did not have the money at that time but maybe they would in 2009.”
Cohilas asked what not having the money has meant to her.
“It’s very important to me,” Bateman said. “I need it very much; I’ve tried to impress on them. I’ve really struggled to get by with help for the last three or four years.”
The amount of the deposits Bateman made to Seasons Christian was in question, ranging from $94,000 to $122,000.
Blackwell, meanwhile, said she received interest payments for a period on a $60,000 ministry deposit she gave Seasons Christian but that the payments became sporadic and then stopped.
“It got to the point where I told them they could go ahead and start my eviction notice because I did not have the money to pay the $400 monthly fees,” an emotional Blackwell said. “They told me I qualified to have those payments taken from my initial ($77,000) ministry deposit.
“My $60,000 is gone, and all I’ve got to live on now is my Social Security check.”
Hodges asked Blackwell why, if she knew the deposits she gave Seasons Christian were not secured, she gave the money.
“Because I was stupid,” she said. “Because they gave me a good story and now they’ve turned around and done nothing but humiliate me.”
In his closing arguments, Hodges offered excerpts of testimony from the affidavits of various officials that refute the plaintiffs’ claims of money mismanagement and fraud.
“Based on the exhaustive investigation that was conducted by the Department of Insurance, we did not find any evidence of wrongdoing or malfeasance as it related to the operation (of Seasons Christian Care) during the review process,” Amanda Jamison Jolley with the Georgia Department of Insurance said. “Complaints of fraud and noncompliance ... were not substantiated and were found to be not accurate.”
Courtney Baskette, a CPA with the Macon-based McNair, McLemore Middlebrook & Co. LLC firm that audited Seasons Christian in 2005 said, “During the course of our 2005 audit, we did not detect any evidence of fraud, including theft of funds received or disbursed with regard to Lamad Ministries/Seasons Christian Care Inc.”
“There’s nothing that’s been presented that would bring you to grant the extraordinary measure of receivership or any kind of temporary restraining order,” Hodges said. “A TRO has to be in the public interest, and in this case that would clearly not be in the public’s interest. It wouldn’t even be in the plaintiffs’ best interest.
“The truth of the matter is this is a simple contract dispute.”
Cohilas countered that Goss should make his decision based on the facts presented that showed elderly citizens were losing money they’d given Seasons Christian in good faith.
“Based on the evidence, it’s clear my clients are losing their life savings,” he said. “I think the balance of equities in this case favors my clients.”
Located on Ledo Road in Albany, Seasons Christian Care consists of 148 units.