CINCINNATI — A federal judge sentenced Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans to 21 months in prison on Tuesday, ending speculation over whether the high-profile Newtown businessman would serve any time behind bars for his 2018 minority contracting fraud conviction.
Evans sobbed in court as his attorney played a 70-minute video in which friends, employees, neighbors and relatives described how he built the American dream out of a high school landscaping job.
The sentimental video, which included senior pastor of Crossroads Church Brian Tome, Mariemont police Chief Rick Hines and Union Township Administrator Ken Geis, did not stop U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett from sentencing Evans to prison, despite pleas for probation.
“This charade was known, cultivated and perpetrated by the entire management team, including Mr. Evans,” Barrett said.
The judge gave Evans a three-month delay before he must report to prison. His attorney, Ben Dusing, hinted that an appeal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was imminent.
A jury in December 2018 found Evans guilty of using a shell company to win millions in public demolition work that had been set aside for minority and small business contractors.
Evans insisted throughout his trial he was innocent, but the jury convicted him of creating a shell company — Ergon Site Construction — in 2008, hoping to win millions in minority demolition jobs from the state and the city of Cincinnati amid a deepening recession.
"It is worth reminding the court that the letters in the name 'Ergon' could be rearranged to form the word 'Negro,'" Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "One witness testified that Doug Evans thought the use of that term for Ergon was hilarious ... The word 'Negro' was written in handwriting at the top of an invoice that was found on a table in Doug Evans' office during the search."
Federal prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Evans to 63 months in prison, ban the company from doing any public work for three years and collect a $750,000 combined fine.
Barrett instead ordered Evans to pay $50,000 and the company to pay $500,000, half of which will be set aside as community service payments to help minority businesses. The judge suggested that the Cincinnati Works jobs program could be a beneficiary.
At the three-hour court hearing, Dusing focused on the good Evans has done for the Newtown community and the jobs he provides to 300 people at the Evans Landscaping group of companies and affiliated businesses.
“If ever there was a man who deserves a second chance, how is it not him?” Dusing said. “There’s 300 families who depend on this man.”
Roughly 75 people packed the courtroom, including many Evans Landscaping employees wearing uniforms and work boots. The judge opened up the jury box as overflow seating, but still a dozen people listened to the hearing from speakers in the hallway.
The FBI began investigating Evans in late 2013, interviewing 70 people and conducting surveillance on Ergon job sites to see if Evans equipment and employees were being used by the supposedly minority-owned company.
Agents raided Evans Landscaping locations in Newtown in July 2015. Nearly two years later, a grand jury handed down indictments in the case.
Dusing suggested there was pressure to deliver a harsh sentence to justify the five-year investigation and the thousands of man hours the government had put into the case.
“He should not be given leniency because he is Doug Evans … but it is equally true he should not be treated more harshly because he is Doug Evans,” Dusing said.
The video, which was delayed by nearly an hour due to courtroom technical difficulties, showed dozens of supporters speaking kindly about Evans. They shared stories of how he delivered Christmas hams and Thanksgiving turkeys, took underprivileged children to the circus, coached youth football, donated anonymously to dozens of charities, and gave jobs to people who desperately needed them.
The 57-year-old Evans spoke somberly during the hearing, thanking the judge for his time and apologizing to his friends and family for the five-year ordeal.
“All I ever wanted to do is give people a chance to work hard and live the American dream, as I have,” Evans said.
But one thing that prosecutors didn’t hear from Evans was remorse or acknowledgment of guilt, Mangan said.
“Steamrolling people, there’s no honor in that,” Mangan said. “They committed the crime so if they’re upset about the bed they’re in – well, they made it.”
Crimes such as minority contracting fraud are difficult to detect and punish, Mangan said, but prosecutions are necessary in order to “preserve a fair playing field.”
Mangan told the judge that other large companies are “watching what happens in this case.”
Barrett agreed, saying that deterrence of similar crimes is a factor in his sentencing decision.
“I’m sure in my own mind this is not an isolated incident,” Barrett said.
In coming weeks the judge will hand down punishments against five current and former Evans Landscaping employees who were also convicted in the fraud scheme.
Four former Evans employees pleaded guilty and testified for prosecutors at trial, saying that fraudulent invoices, checks and photos were created to make Ergon seem like a legitimate minority business when in fact it was part of Evans.
Evans Landscaping vice president of operations Jim Bailey, who was convicted at trial with Evans, will be sentenced on Jan. 10.
Unlike Evans, who testified in his own defense, Bailey did not take the witness stand. His lawyers argued he had nothing to do with the creation or daily operations of Ergon.
A jury convicted both Evans and Bailey of two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and three counts of wire fraud on Dec. 11, 2018 after deliberating for less than four hours. Attorneys produced hundreds of emails, thousands of documents, and dozens of witnesses during the month-long trial.