CINCINNATI - More than three years after FBI agents arrived in unmarked cars to raid Evans Landscaping, the Newtown company and its well-known owner, Doug Evans, will go on trial for federal wire fraud charges on Tuesday.
Evans, 57, who built a landscaping empire that began when he hauled mulch in a pickup truck as a teenager, faces up to 103 years in prison if convicted on all six charges.
“The man wakes up every day and employs 250 people,” said Evans’ attorney, Ben Dusing. “This case transcends Doug personally. There’s a lot of people impacted by this, and this is serious business.”
Prosecutors allege that Evans and an IT employee, Korey Jordan, created a new company, Ergon Site Construction, in 2008 to act as a front for Evans to win minority contracts with the state, and the city of Cincinnati – 140 demolition contracts worth nearly $2 million.
Evans is a well-known figure on the city’s East Side, and this month-long trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati is expected to garner a lot of attention.
“The Evans trucks are all over town. Doug Evans has done a fabulous job with his career,” said former deputy criminal chief of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Cincinnati, Ralph Kohnen. “And I think that, yeah, people will be interested.”
Evans has also been collecting property for more than 20 years and is Newtown’s biggest landowner. He controls more than 800 acres, including the purchase of Ivy Hills Country Club in 2014.
At the heart of the case was how Evans did business with Ergon.
“Ergon was not independently owned and controlled by Mr. Jordan and it did not provide commercially useful services," U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman said at a 2017 press conference. "Instead everything about what Ergon did was owned and controlled for the benefit of Evans.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan said the whole purpose of the city’s disadvantaged business enterprise program is to develop a broader base of contractors from small and minority companies.
“When you dupe them and basically steal the (disadvantaged business enterprise program) work … it ruins the program,” Mangan said during a 2017 court hearing. “The critical part of the program is who does the work.”
Whatever jurors believe about the true relationship between Jordan and Evans may determine the trial’s outcome.
Evans faces trial with Jim Bailey, who is vice president of operations at Evans Landscaping. Both men face the same charges: two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, three counts of wire fraud, and one count of misprision of a felony. The company, Evans Landscaping, faces five charges and a potential $1.25 million in fines.
“It’s really going to get down to a question of intent," Kohnen said. "What did Mr. Evans and his co-defendants and the corporation by virtue of their actions, intend to do here … did they intend to deceive the government.”
Evans has insisted he was just trying to help Jordan start his own minority-owned business by giving him $85,000 in startup money, guaranteeing a line of credit and teaching him the business. The two men coached youth football together.
"It was a nice thing for Evans to do," Dusing said. "It was a fairly typical, common partnership between an established company and a start-up company.”
But federal prosecutors, who declined comment for this story, describe a very different relationship in court documents: Jordan performed "little if any work" for Ergon and had little actual control of Ergon's management, finances and operations.
Evans Landscaping not only dispatched Ergon vehicles to jobs, it also directed virtually all field and construction operations, including on-site supervision of Ergon field workers, according to federal prosecutors.
While Dusing admits that Evans Landscaping helped Ergon on certain jobs because Jordan's company was "incompetent," at no point did it control Ergon. In fact, if there was a problem with Ergon's demolition work, city of Cincinnati employees actually called Evans to complain.
"At no point in time did Evans take over for Ergon," Dusing said in 2017. "At various points in time, often at the request of the city, when Ergon screwed up big time ... Evans endeavored to assist Ergon. To the extent there are allegations that Evans' relationship with Ergon was concealed from the city, that is absurd."
Four Evans employees take plea deals
Jurors will also have to weigh the credibility of four former Evans employees who have agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges, in exchange for their testimony.
One of them is Jordan – the key figure in the case, who agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Three other Evans Landscaping employees also signed plea agreements admitting their guilt and will testify at trial: Maurice Patterson and John Dietrich, two former CFOs; and former manager Michael Moeller.
“These witnesses are sometimes referred to as flippers. People who were originally defendants who now have cut a deal with the government,” Kohnen said. “What the government will do is work very hard to corroborate that testimony because, when you think about it, they’ve already admitted to being a criminal at that point.”
Federal prosecutors will use documents and the testimony of other witnesses, to try to back up what the former Evans employees say.
“In other words, take their testimony and match it up to the testimony of others so that a consistent story is being told,” Kohnen said.
And the defense will try to poke holes in their testimony by using emails that date back for years.
“If people tell the truth, that’s all we need to hear,” Dusing said. “If they say something different than what they’ve said in the past, I’ll need to explore that in greater depth. And will."
The FBI executed four search warrants in this case, producing two million documents and emails between Evans employees and outside advisors.
Dusing has filed a subpoena to get internal emails from Evans’ accountant, Tony Schweier, of Clark Schaefer Hackett. That accountant could be key to Evans’ defense.
“Because it was Mr. Schweier's idea for the Evans defendants to cultivate a relationship with, and to invest in Ergon,” Dusing wrote in a court motion. “It may be an uncomfortable truth for CSH (Clark Schaefer Hacket), but they are front and center in this case.”
Kohnen, the former federal prosecutor, believes this could be a valid defense for Evans.
“Mr. Evans’ attorneys are going to say, ‘Look, he relied on an expert to tell him how to do this.’ It’s a good defense. And it could work,” Kohnen said. “A lot of it depends on if the expert told Mr. Evans to do it, or if Mr. Evans told the expert to do it.”
“That’s where you get into a complicated area for the jury to decide,” Kohnen said.