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Key witness testifies that Evans Landscaping 'controlled' minority business to win city contracts

Posted at 4:47 PM, Nov 26, 2018

CINCINNATI - Another key witness in the wire fraud case against Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans testified on Monday that she worked for a minority business that was ultimately controlled by Evans.

Debbie Catalanotto, who ran Ergon Site Construction with owner Korey Jordan for two years, testified for nearly five hours but stayed steadfast in her assertion that, “It was supposed to be our company … in reality, it wasn’t.”

As Evans’ trial in U.S. District Court begins its third week, prosecutors have focused on calling witnesses to back up the accusations made by Jordan against prominent East Side businessman Doug Evans, his company and a slew of Evans Landscaping managers.

“I’m a black man in this city and I did this and I shouldn’t have done it,” Korey Jordan testified on Nov. 19, wiping away tears. “I went against my belief system.”

Jordan, a longtime IT worker at Evans Landscaping, testified that he acted as the front for a new company – Ergon Site Construction – that was created in 2008 to win minority demolition contracts with the state and the city of Cincinnati.

Although Jordan was the owner of Ergon, he testified that he controlled no money and had no decision-making power. He had to ask Evans to pay for all expenses, such as gas or a new laptop. And he routinely signed 20 blank company checks at a time, for use of Evans.

On Monday, Catalanotto backed up what Jordan had previously told jurors.

“My constant battle during my time there was we didn’t have financial control of the business,” Catalanotto testified. “I was trying to push the company to distance itself from Evans and operate independently.”

FBI agents began investigating Evans in late 2013. They conducted surveillance on job sites, executed four search warrants, and collected 2 million emails.

NEWTOWN, Ohio (July 7, 2015) -- Local authorities and federal agents raided the premises of Evans Landscaping's Newtown location on Round Bottom road early Tuesday morning.

Evans, 57, who built a landscaping empire that began when he hauled mulch in a pickup truck as a teenager, now employs 250. He faces up to 103 years in prison if convicted on all six charges.

Jordan agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge -- one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud -- in exchange for his testimony. Three other former Evans leaders also signed plea agreements in exchange for their testimony.

Catalanotto said she also was concerned about criminal charges. But she got a letter from federal prosecutors assuring her that she would not be charged, in exchange for her testimony.

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.

If the men ever got caught, Jordan testified that Evans told him he would say, “I was just trying to help a brother out.”

“He was playing the reverse race card … that was the stance he told me he was going to take in court if we were exposed,” Jordan testified.

Evans Landscaping vice president of operations, Jim Bailey, faces trial with Doug Evans. Illustration by Kevin Necessary | WCPO.

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.

But Catalanotto testified that the relationship between Ergon and Evans seemed odd.

She had owned a minority business enterprise years before -- a forklift equipment sales business. That prior company had a strategic partnership with a bigger business, but it was not controlled by it, she testified.

She described Ergon’s relationship with Evans Landscaping as “it was totally different.”

Like Jordan, Catalanotto testified that she had no control over Ergon’s financials, the jobs it bid on, the employees it hired, or any purchases. All of that was done by Evans employees.

Although Ergon only had a handful of employees, Doug Evans approved the purchase of 50 short-sleeved and 50 long-sleeved Ergon shirts, and 30 hats, she testified.

Both she and Jordan testified that Evans employees routinely worked on Ergon job sites, simply switching their uniforms. And large Ergon magnets were used to cover up the Evans logo on trucks.

Catalanotto testified that she cropped out Evans trucks and equipment from photos of Ergon job sites that were sent to the city of Cincinnati.

“It was done to downplay Evans involvement in our work,” Catalanotto testified.

Ben Dusing, attorney for Doug Evans, delivers an opening statement to the jury on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. Illustration by Kevin Necessary | WCPO.

Under cross-examination, Evans’ attorney Ben Dusing tried to show that many basic functions at Ergon were in fact, actually done by Ergon employees.

But Catalanotto wouldn’t budge in her testimony. “We didn’t have control over when jobs were performed,” she insisted.

Under cross-examination by Bailey’s attorney, Candace Crouse, Catalanotto admitted that she didn’t believe much of what Jordan said. She testified that Jordan fired her from Ergon in 2013, in order to keep a higher salary for himself, but didn’t initially tell her that she had lost her job.

“At that point I didn’t trust anything that Korey was telling me,” Catalanotto testified.

A city of Cincinnati Buildings and Inspections Department employee, Laura Briede, also testified that Ergon won contracts worth nearly $2.4 million from 2011 to 2014.

Other city employees are expected to testify this week.