ALBANY, Ga. — An indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Macon and obtained this week by The Albany Herald names a family of businessmen and farmers and one local minister in what prosecutors contend is a conspiracy to defraud the Farm Credit Administration of more than $10 million.
Brad Heard Sr., Brad Heard Jr., Lawton C. Heard and the Rev. Craig A. Howell were each named in an indictment handed down Thursday.
They have an initial appearance in court set for Tuesday, court officials say.
In it, the grand jurors charge that the four men were each connected to Larry Malone, the former chief lending officer at Southwest Georgia Farm Credit (SWGFC) 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 the 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 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 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.
Heard Jr. was also indicted on charges that he illegally concealed his assets in connection to a bankruptcy petition for Backwoods Outdoors in 2008 when he testified under oath that he had no side deals with the buyer — identified as “J.S.” and “Mr. Sizemore” in the indictment — when, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he and “J.S.” had a written agreement dated Sept. 2, 2008 in which “J.S.” agreed to pay $300,000 directly to Heard, Jr., and not to the debtor business or to the bankruptcy court.
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, Backwoods Outdoors LLC. was administratively dissolved in 2010. John Walker Sizemore of Smithville is the registered agent for Sizemore Backwoods Outdoors LLC., according to the secretary’s website.
Howell is also indicted for making false statements to a bank when, on May 10, 2006, prosecutors contend that he falsely told loan officials at HeritageBank of the South that the $100,000 down payment he was making to purchase a house was a gift from his mother when Howell knew the money was from a loan he had made on April 28 from SWGFC and was obligated to repay.
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.”
Herald reporters Pete Skiba and Terry Lewis contributed to this report.