CINCINNATI - FBI agents secretly investigated Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans for nearly four years before a grand jury indicted him on six charges related to wire fraud in 2017.
The FBI agent who led that probe, Matthew DeBlauw, was the first witness to testify on Tuesday as Evans’ long-awaited trial began in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. If convicted, Evans faces up to 103 years in prison.
“This case is about lying and cheating,” assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter told the jury during her opening statement. “The defendants lied and cheated to gain an unfair advantage against their competitors.”
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 city demolition contracts worth nearly $2 million.
Evans is a well-known figure on the city’s East Side and one of Newtown’s biggest landowners. He built a landscaping empire from a humble beginning hauling mulch in a pickup truck as a teenager.
“He worked his tail off,” said Evans’ attorney, Ben Dusing. “He built this company into one of the largest and best private employers in the region … this is the American dream.”
Evans Landscaping now produces $35 million in annual sales and employs 250. Many employees, who wore Evans Landscaping shirts, sat in the courtroom on Tuesday.
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. FBI agents began to secretly investigate Evans in late 2013. Agents interviewed 70 people, some more than once, DeBlauw said.
Agents raided Evans Landscaping locations in Newtown in July 2015. Then, nearly two years later, a grand jury handed down indictments in the case.
“The government would have you believe that this was a scheme concocted in some boiler room … no,” Dusing said. “Ergon Site Construction was about two dads coaching football together … and one of them wanted a chance.”
Dusing showed the jury a photo of that football team – the Forest Hill Tigers – during his opening statement. Evans was just trying to help Jordan start his own minority-owned business by giving him startup money, guaranteeing a line of credit and teaching him the business, Dusing said.
“There’s no evidence that Mr. Evans or anyone else put a gun to Mr. Jordan’s head and made him do anything,” Dusing said. “There’s no front here.”
Whatever jurors believe about the true relationship between Jordan and Evans may determine the trial’s outcome.
Until 2008, Evans Landscaping worked almost exclusively on private projects. With the recession looming, Evans’ longtime accountant Tony Schweier of Clark Schaefer Hackett encouraged him to bid on public jobs, Dusing said.
At the same time, Jordan asked Evans for help to start his own business, Dusing said.
“Mr. Evans wanted to help a friend,” Dusing said. “ And Evans needed a reliable inclusion partner.”
But Glatfelter described what Jordan and Evans were doing as a criminal scheme.
“Mr. Evans paid him $24,000 a year to be the face of Ergon, to sign paperwork and to do what he was told,” Glatfelter said. “His only qualification was that he was African American … and his son played football with Mr. Evans son.”
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, she said.
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 employees called Evans to complain.
“Mr. Jordan asked for an opportunity. He was given it and he totally screwed it up,” Dusing said. “He stayed at home and laid on the couch.”
Ergon got more work than it anticipated because the city of Cincinnati had received a lot of federal money for demolitions, Dusing said.
“He couldn’t handle all of it,” Dusing said. “He couldn’t get it done. Luckily Evans Landscaping was there to help out. It wasn’t anticipated.”
The city workers who handle minority contracts and demolition jobs will testify at trial, as will many former and current Evans Landscaping employees, attorneys said.
Four former Evans employees who have agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges will also testify at trial. 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.
“They are schemers who took deals from the government,” said Candace Crouse, an attorney for Jim Bailey.
She described Bailey as a “blue collar vice president,” who assigned workers to jobs everyday, but never looked at Evans Landscaping financials or made big decisions.
Bailey came to work for Evans in 1989, at age 21. He grew up on a farm in Highland County and worked for Evans as a day laborer earning $4.50 an hour.
“Jim Bailey was used by the schemers,” Crouse said. “Just because you work for a company, doesn’t mean that you are in criminal agreement if other employees do bad things.”
Crouse also said that Jordan and Bailey didn’t get along. She told the jury they would see a text message from Jordan about “bringing Jim down.”
DeBlauw will continue to testify on Wednesday. He spent most of Tuesday afternoon explaining business records, financial documents, emails, invoices and accounting records.
The trial, in front of U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett, is expected to last three to four weeks.