• 75°

Jury finds in favor of County Commission in Hayneville Plaza purchase lawsuit

By Fred Guarino

The Lowndes Signal

Jury still out.

After seven days of trial, two and one half hours of closing arguments and about seven hours of deliberations spread over two days, a Lowndes County jury found against all defendants in a lawsuit brought by the Lowndes County Commission over the original purchase of the Hayneville Plaza.

The civil lawsuit was tried in the Lowndes County 2nd Judicial Circuit Court presided over by Circuit Judge Terri Bozeman Lovell.

The suit involved question of monies being wrongfully dispersed and received concerning agreements made by the Lowndes County Commission, Hayneville Plaza LLC and South Central Alabama Broadband Commission.

The amount in question was the handling of $500,000 that Lowndes County Commission had expected to utilize in order to pay two years of interest payments due on a bond that was floated and used to purchase Hayneville Plaza LLC owned by Karl Bell, which sold for $3.2 million.

The central issue of the lawsuit was the alleged early release of the $3.2 million dollars by Charlie King Jr. for purchase of the building owned by Karl Bell before agreements regarding $500,000 to be placed in escrow were signed.

The Lowndes County Commission expected to utilize the $500,000 in order to pay two years of interest payments due on a bond that was floated and used to purchase the Hayneville Plaza.

By way of background: In June of 2011, the Lowndes Council Commission voted to float a $3.5 million bond to purchase the Hayneville Plaza Building, which was appraised at $3.2 million, for use by the South Central Alabama Broadband Commission (SCABC) in connection with a federal grant and private investors funded broadband project.

In 2012, a $59 million grant to Trillion Communications from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the $86 million SCABC project in eight Alabama counties was terminated.

A lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Lowndes County Commission against Karl Bell, Hayneville Plaza LLC and the South Central Alabama Broadband District (SCABC) was amended to include additional defendants, Charlie King (Jr.), Helenor Bell, Robert Wood and Aaron McCall as defendants.

The Lowndes County Commission was represented during the trial of the lawsuit by attorney Arlene Richardson and co-counsel Jerry Thornton. Defendants Karl and Helenor Bell and Wood were represented by attorney Michael Strickland; King was represented by attorney Kenneth Shinbaum and defendant McCall was represented by attorney Fred Bell.  Wood was dropped from the lawsuit.

According to the verdicts handed down Wednesday, Jan. 16 the plaintfiff (Lowndes County Commission) is claiming of defendant Hayneville Plaza LLC that $500,000 was wrongfully disbursed to Hayneville Plaza LLC by Charlie King (Jr.) and was wrongfully received by Hayneville Plaza LLC, Karl Bell, Helenor Bell and or Aaron McCall.

The jury found for the plantiff (Lowndes County Commission) and against the defendants as follows:

For wrongly disbursing public moneys or funds and for wrongfully receiving public moneys or funds assessed the plaintiff damages of $25,000 against Hayneville Plaza LLC and or assessed the plantiff damages at $25,000 against Karl Bell, and or assessed the plaintiff damages  at $13,177 against Helenor Bell and or assessed the plaintiff damages at $12,000 against Aaron McCall and or assessed the plaintiff damages at $1 against Charlie King (Jr.)

Further, the plaintiff (Lowndes County Commission)  is claiming of defendants damages for breach of contract in that Hanyneville Plaza LLC did not loan or place in escrow $500,000 for the Lowndes County Commission.

The jury found for the plaintiff and against the defendant Hayneville Plaza LLC $1.

Richardson said following the verdicts, “We are pleased with the verdict because it shows that Karl Bell, Helenor Bell, Hayneville Plaza LLC, Aaron McCall and Charlie King (Jr) did wrongfully disburse and receive funds.”

She said, “A verdict for the county of wrongdoing against the defendants we hope will draw a line in the sand and that the county will no longer tolerate this kind of misconduct. We wish we could have recouped the whole $500,000 but all in all we are satisfied with a win.”

In her closing arguments Tuesday, Richardson said if King had waited to release the $3.2 million purchase amount to the Bells until agreements were signed, “We wouldn’t be here.”

Richardson told the jury, “If you believe, yes, there was a contract; Yes, there was breach of that contract, and yes, Lowndes County lost use of the money, then you can award interest at 6 percent that the commission would have earned over 2 years had they held the $500,000.”

She also said, “If you do decide this, know they (the defendants) aren’t terrible people as that’s not what we are here for. We are here to decide was the money wrongfully released and wrongfully received.”

Strickland said in his closing argument, the case was about, “The County Commission wanted a loan.”

He likened the case by the county to submarine warfare where, “They want you to follow the bubbles, not follow the truth.”

He questioned documents produced by the county, which Bell said he did not sign. And he said the SCABC never agreed to pay back a “duck” a word he used in place of “loan.”

Strickland said the county never had an agreement. And he said, “What this case is about… Money, jobs coming in. How can the county get a piece of the action?” He said, “It was an investment that fell through and they want someone to blame.”