LEESBURG, Ga. -- Cataula businessman Chris McLendon, owner of the now-closed Hardwoods Deer Processing business on Philema Road, was fined the maximum $700 for operating a business without a license in Lee County Magistrate Court Tuesday morning after he offered a nolo contendere plea in a case brought by the Lee County Marshal/Code Enforcement office.
In reaching a plea agreement with McLendon, Southwestern Judicial Circuit Chief Assistant District Attorney Lewis Lamb asked for a higher-than-usual fine because of what he called the "other important circumstances" that were part of the case.
"Because of the complaints about the way the meat was kept and processed, I thought a substantially higher fine was in order," Lamb said after the hearing. "Unfortunately, there is no other public recourse for people who may have been impacted.
"Because it involves wild game, the health department does not inspect this type of facility. That's left to DNR (Department of Natural Resources), but once they make an initial inspection and issue a permit, they do no further inspections. It's one of those situations that falls through the legal cracks."
McLendon said the $700 fine adds to "between 10,000 and 15,000 bucks I've lost so far" since opening the processing business at the start of the 2011-2012 deer season. The court appearance Tuesday was his second.
"What gripes me is that I know I did the right thing here," McLendon said after the hearing. "At some point, I'll prove that, one way or another."
Hardwoods was cited on Dec. 28 and on Jan. 9 for operating without a business license. McLendon and his brother-in-law Joe Aldridge, who managed the Hardwoods business, were ordered to answer the charges in court. Aldridge, however, did not appear Tuesday, and Lamb said he has apparently gone on the run with McLendon's truck.
Lee Chief Marshal/Code Enforcement Officer Jim Wright said that an inspection of the Hardwoods facility by DNR officers turned up "rancid, foul-smelling meat" and "blowflies all over the place." Those officers apparently made a video of the facility during their inspection, but that video was not allowed in court Tuesday.
"One of the reasons I agreed to the plea was that I knew who was in court today," McLendon said. "They had that gun cocked and loaded. But I wasn't going to sit there and defend myself against people who said they got tainted meat. Since I was rarely on the premises, I didn't know if these people were customers or not.
"And what could they show on any video they took? You can't smell anything on a video."
Three people who claim to have gotten spoiled meat from Hardwoods were in court Tuesday but were not allowed to testify. Surgical technician Tommy Hancock said he was frustrated by the ruling.
"I got two rotten deer from there, and I'm a little disheartened that we weren't allowed to tell that in court today," Hancock said. "It's upsetting to hear that there is no regulatory agency to protect citizens from this type thing. Anybody, apparently, can open a business like this and offer unsanitary meat to the public. And, trust me, I'm in the medical field, and I know unsanitary conditions.
"I have a family of five, and except for some chicken now and then, we pretty much live off deer meat. If nothing else comes of this, I'd like to see some regulation that would require wild game processors to go through some type of inspection."
Wright, meanwhile, said he too was disappointed that only the business license charges were allowed against McLendon.
"I was under the impression that the DNR and other witnesses would be allowed to testify," he said. "It's disappointing that that wasn't the case. But everyone involved in this case -- our office, the DNR, the Building Inspections office -- did their job. And in the end, there was no more rotten meat sold (at Hardwoods after citations were issued)."
Lee Chief Magistrate Court Judge Jim Thurman originally announced a fine of $1,300 for McLendon, but Lamb pointed out that county ordinance specified a maximum fine of $500. Thurman ruled that McLendon must pay the maximum -- plus $200 in state add-on fees -- and declared any probation would be terminated upon payment of the fine.
"I'm just not satisfied with the way this case was handled," McLendon said. "When we applied for a business license and were told we had electrical issues, we took care of those issues. But we couldn't get anyone to come back and re-inspect. That was the crux of the problem right there.
"Then they wasted my time by having me come over here to court twice for something that should have been handled in their (Code) office. I guess this kind of puts an end to things. I'll talk with my attorney about what options I have."