ALBANY, Ga. — Four men accused of bank fraud in a growing investigation stemming from a disgraced Bainbridge bank loan officer entered not guilty pleas in federal court Wednesday.
Court officials say Brad Heard Sr., Brad Heard Jr., Lawton Heard and the Rev. Craig Howell each entered not guilty pleas before U.S. Magistrate Tommy Langstaff and were released on their own recognizance.
The four are the latest indicted in a growing probe of the business dealings of Larry Malone, the former chief lending officer at Southwest Georgia Farm Credit in Bainbridge who has pleaded guilty to fraud and whose sentencing has been delayed pending his cooperation with federal prosecutors.
According to the indictment, Brad Heard Jr., who owned Backwoods Outdoors in Leesburg, borrowed roughly $5 million from SWGFC to purchase real estate in Southwest Georgia and North Florida.
Brad Heard Sr. also borrowed roughly $5 million from SWGFC and, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, acted as a “straw borrower,” meaning he borrowed money from SWGFC on behalf of his son, who had nearly reached the $6 million cap imposed on farm credit loans by the federal government.
Howell, who is the full-time pastor at Plantation Parkway Assembly of God in Leesburg, is alleged in the indictment to have borrowed nearly $817,000 from SWGFC, also on behalf of Brad Heard Jr. The indictment also charges that Howell borrowed $195,000 from the program to purchase a home for himself.
Lawton Heard, the brother of Brad Heard Sr., is accused in the indictment of borrowing $1.7 million from the SWGFC on behalf of his nephew.
In exchange for rubber-stamping the loans, Malone and family members reportedly received thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the Heards, the indictment contends.
Malone is a key figure in at least one other farm loan scheme being prosecuted by the U.S. government. In January, Joseph W. “Wiley” Jordan was indicted on five counts of fraud in connection with a series of loans totaling $3.4 million from June 2007 through January 2008.
Malone was the loan officer at the time and is believed to have paid Jordan $36,000 for referring new borrowers to SWGFC.
Jordan was convicted by a jury in June and is awaiting sentencing.
“Especially during challenging economic times, we will not tolerate this kind of fraud. The financial system works when we all play by the rules and obey the laws,” U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said.
Jordan’s attorney, Buddy Parker, said following the verdict that he’s planning an appeal.
“As the judge said, this was a difficult and hard case,” Parker said. “There was insufficient evidence to support the verdict, and we will appeal.”