ATHENS - A federal jury on Friday found former Georgia football head coach Jim Donnan not guilty in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of a combined $23 million.
"I hope now I can put my life back together," said Donnan, who was charged with 41 counts related to mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. The government charged that Donnan, who coached Georgia from 1996 to 2000, was an active participant in the Ponzi scheme.
When the verdict was announced Friday afternoon, members of Donnan's family breathed a small exhale of relief, and Donnan slapped his lawyer on the back.
"It's been a very tough process from Day one here," Donnan said a short time later outside the offices of Ed Tolley, his Athens lawyer. "I felt like when I did find out what was going on all I've ever tried to do is work to rectify a terrible situation for everybody. I've been proven innocent in three different bankruptcy cases and now this one. I feel like all of us who have made money have tried to pay it back."
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The verdict came after about 13 hours of jury deliberation, spread out over Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday morning. The prosecution called around two dozen witnesses over four-plus days but the defense, in a sign of confidence, only called three witnesses and rested after one afternoon.
The defense had argued that Donnan was duped by his ex-partner, Gregory Crabtree, who has pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy. Jurors apparently believed that, or at least believed that the federal government never proved that he was criminally liable.
"I kept thinking day after day the government was gonna pull out a smoking gun. I just never really saw one," jury foreman Artie Ricks said. "I think Mr. Donnan was as big a victim in this as any of the investors, in my personal opinion."
Ricks said he was also struck that many of the witnesses called by the prosecution, failed investors in GLC, said they were still friends with Donnan. There was little to no anger at the coach for bringing them into the business.
Two of Donnan's former Georgia players, Jonas Jennings and Kendrell Bell, did testify about losing money, saying they had trusted Donnan. But that was enough for the jury to look past as well.
"His overall character as a man over the years that he's a man led me to believe what I believe," said Ricks, a 55-year-old resident of Hartwell. "He basically helped people all his life, and I just didn't think he would go into something to cheat his family and put them in harm's way. Or his friends."
GLC, the West Virginia-based company started by Crabtree, operated by selling pre-sold goods. Donnan joined in 2007 and a year later began recruiting investors, including his son Todd and many friends from the coaching industry. GLC ended up collapsing in 2011.
The prosecution argued that Donnan was an active partner and must have known what Crabtree was up to. Prosecutor G.F. "Pete" Peterman pointed to Donnan being a Hall of Fame coach, running Georgia's program, and being "a celebrity commentator." He would not have ceded so much responsibility to Crabtree, the prosecution argued.
The prosecution’s most compelling argument seemed to be that Donnan stopped investing in Feb. 2010, but continued to recruit investors, including talking Athens urologist David Allen into giving $1 million of family savings.
But Ricks said the jury noted that Donnan initiated an investigation that year into what was going on at GLC.
“That just doesn’t sound like something a guilty person would do,” Ricks said. “He’s the one who took all the steps to try to get to the bottom of this.”
Throughout the case prosecution lawyers - who were not available for comment after the verdict - were very methodical in making their case. They emphasized the finances of the operation, but in so doing did not do enough to tie Donnan to the activities of Crabtree. The prosecution did seem to have a stronger closing argument on Wednesday, arguing that Donnan controlled the money and was "the captain of the ship."
But in the end it still did not contain that "smoking gun" that the jury foreman said was needed.
"As I told the jury in closing argument there's a fine line between making a mistake and a crime," Tolley said after the verdict. "And we felt like all along that this was not a crime, that it was maybe not wise, poorly-managed, you name it. But it never was a crime."