A little more than a month after authorities shuttered 10 Bibb County convenience stores, the owners of one store have agreed to a settlement that will allow them to reopen.
Prosecutors filed a lawsuit after the Nov. 5 commercial gambling raid — Bibb County’s largest-ever — seeking the forfeiture of seized money, property and other assets from the stores. They alleged the assets are proceeds from a racketeering operation based in illegal gambling. Stores are accused of illegally paying winnings in cash instead of store credit or lottery tickets as the law allows.
Brian Jarrard, an attorney representing the owner of the Shell station at 1585 Forest Hill Road said Friday that his clients hoped to reopen that day after striking a final agreement with prosecutors. Because the agreement wasn’t finalized, Jarrard declined comment regarding terms of the settlement.
Jarrard said his clients deny any wrongdoing. They have not been charged in the pending criminal racketeering case involving alleged illegal activity at the raided stores and maintain they aren’t affiliated with the six people arrested. But prosecutors said at a November hearing that Jarrard’s clients may be suspects.
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Krunal Patel, 38; Harpreet Kaur, 40; Shuken Patel, 29; and Navpreet Kaur, 39, have been charged with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Vinod J. Patel, 46, and Hardeep Kaur, 67, are charged with commercial gambling.
A Nov. 25 consent order gave eight stores permission to reopen with supervision from a court-appointed lawyer. The order excluded the Shell and Bateman and Wade Grocery on Clayton Street.
Despite permission to reopen, three stores — Texaco Food Mart, 4381 Mercer University Drive; Market Place, 4515 Hartley Bridge Road; and Lulu’s Lottery and More, 3253 Mercer University Drive — have not reopened, according to a report filed by the court-appointed lawyer. The lawyer, called a receiver, is tasked with managing the seized assets and property while the lawsuit is pending.
Several stores were burglarized in the weeks following the raids. Alarm systems have been changed, and the sheriff’s office has increased patrols near the stores, according to the report.
Paul Oeland, an attorney representing nine stores, excluding the Forest Hill Road Shell station, said workers in the stores left after the raids.
The owners have had difficulty finding employees.
Georgia Lottery representatives suspended not just the stores’ ability to run coin-operated amusement machines but also their selling of scratch-off tickets and other lottery products, Oeland said.
Lottery products are a large draw for the stores, he said.
Even for the stores that have reopened, they “opened with one hand tied behind their backs,” Oeland said.
He denied allegations that some of the stores haven’t reopened because they were simply “fronts” for illegal gambling.The stores that remain closed have “significant inventory” that is spoiling, Oeland said. Decisions must be made about what to do with the goods since the inventory — or its replacement goods — will remain subject to forfeiture as long as the lawsuit is pending.
Oeland said store owners are facing pressure from landlords and other creditors.
For stores that have not reopened, owners must find money to pay rent and other bills because their assets were frozen on the day of the raid, Oeland said.
The stores that reopened can pay bills with money that’s come in since they reopened.
“It’s been crippling,” he said.
LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST PROSECUTOR
About a week after the Bibb County raid, a group of coin-operated amusement machine owners who also run convenience stores filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court.
The lawsuit was filed by Redemption Alliance of Georgia Inc., Gaming Central LLC and William A. Booth and names two defendants, Georgia Attorney General Samuel Olens and Michael Lambros, the special prosecutor hired by the Bibb County District Attorney’s Office to handle the commercial gambling case.
The lawsuit alleges Lambros has a conflict of interest in the cases he handles because in some instances he’s been paid on a contingency based on the outcome of the case. In Bibb County, Lambros is being paid an hourly rate.
The lawsuit also claims Lambros improperly uses the state’s RICO statute to bring about forfeiture claims.
Citing the advice of an attorney, Lambros’s office declined comment on the lawsuit last week other than to say, “we believe that suit to be totally without legal or factual basis ... we will vigorously defend it.”
Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke said the lawsuit doesn’t shake his confidence in the case Lambros is prosecuting in Macon.
“It looks like they’re acting out of desperation,” he said. “Michael Lambros has been putting them out of business.”
‘WHO KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS’
Bibb County’s case isn’t the first showdown between Lambros and Oeland.
Oeland said the two have worked on opposing sides of dozens of other Georgia cases.
He argues the felony commercial gambling charge filed by Lambros has been incorrectly applied. Allegations of improper cash payouts should be misdemeanors, Oeland said.
In the other cases, Oeland said his clients either pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor or were found guilty of a misdemeanor at non-jury trials.
None of the forfeiture lawsuits he’s faced with Lambros have ever gone to trial. They’ve all ended in a settlement.
Due to the magnitude of the Bibb County case, there’s no settlement on the horizon, Oeland said.
“Who knows what the future holds,” he said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.