ATHENS — In a federal courtroom one mile from Sanford Stadium, former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan scored the biggest victory of his life Friday.
A jury of seven women and five men found Donnan not guilty on all 41 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering and conspiracy that the government had brought against him in connection with an alleged investment scheme.
In the moments after the verdict was announced by U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal, Donnan hugged his attorneys, wife and other family members and seemed to fight back tears.
He knew a different verdict could have led to a lengthy prison sentence.
In an interview at his Athens home later Friday, Donnan named a number of high-pressure, high-stakes games from his coaching career and said they could not compare with the stress he felt Friday.
“Hey listen, I’ve played in front of 80,000 people at Lincoln, Nebraska, played in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, played for the national championship at Marshall, played against Florida every year (while at UGA),” he said. “Nothing even comes close to approximating that minute when the judge announced the verdict.
“The apprehension and anxiety was overwhelming.”
Prosecutors had argued that Donnan and another man, Greg Crabtree, ran a scheme from 2007-10, promising investors high rates of return from a West Virginia company, GLC Limited, that purportedly sold closeout merchandise. But GLC sold relatively little and instead repaid early investors with money from later investors in what amounted to a Ponzi scheme, prosecutors told the jury.
Donnan’s attorneys, Ed Tolley and Jerry Froelich, countered that Donnan was duped by Crabtree and thought GLC was a legitimate business and a great investment opportunity that he wanted to share with family and friends.
Jurors found insufficient evidence to support the prosecution’s position that Donnan knew the business was fraudulent, jury foreman Artis Ricks said in an interview after the verdict was announced.
“I kept thinking day after day the government was going to pull out a smoking gun, and I just never really saw one,” Ricks said. “I think Mr. Donnan was as big a victim in this as some of the investors who lost their money.”
Ricks, who lives in Hartwell, said the evidence showed Donnan solicited help to try to investigate GLC’s problems when the company began missing payments to investors in 2010.
“That just doesn’t sound like something a guilty person would do,” Ricks said.
The jury foreman also noted Donnan brought in his son and son-in-law as GLC investors.
“I just didn’t think he would do something to cheat his family and put them in harm’s way,” Ricks said.
Prosecutors, who did not comment after the verdict, called dozens of witnesses during the trial, which began May 6. The defense called just three witnesses, but used cross-examination of prosecution witnesses to make points. Jurors deliberated for about 12 hours over parts of three days after getting the case Wednesday afternoon.
Shortly after returning from lunch Friday, the jurors informed the judge they had reached a verdict on all counts.
The judge looked over the verdict form, confirmed every juror had signed it and then, rather than having it read aloud count by count, simply announced “not guilty” had been checked 41 times. With that, the jury was dismissed, and the criminal case against Donnan was over.
“The verdict moved me,” said Tolley, Donnan’s lawyer and longtime friend. “I’m so grateful to the jury that they paid attention.”
Said Donnan: “I had an inner calm from the standpoint that I knew my innocence. But at the same time, there was a lot of what-ifs involved. Particularly at my age (69), you’re looking down the barrel of trying to speculate (about possible outcomes).”
Donnan revealed that prosecutors offered him a plea deal before the trial, but said it would have required jail time.
“I felt like there’s no way I could look at my children or my grandchildren or my wife, knowing my innocence, and take something like that,” Donnan said.
Crabtree, originally indicted along with Donnan, avoided trial by pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud in the sale of a security. He faces up to five years in prison when sentenced June 24 in Athens.
GLC, which stood for Global Liquidation Center, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, as did Donnan.
Prosecutors said during Donnan’s trial that GLC investors, mostly recruited by the former coach, lost $22.9 million. They included high-profile football and basketball coaches, two of Donnan’s former Georgia players and a number of wealthy businessmen. Several of the money-losing investors, called as prosecution witnesses, said on cross-examination that they remain friends with Donnan.
“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,” Donnan said. “I feel like all of us who made money have tried to pay it back.”
Said Tolley: “There’s a fine line between people making a mistake and a crime. This was maybe not wise, poorly managed, you name it, but it never was a crime, and that’s the thing I think the jury latched on to.”
Donnan said his future plans include attending a granddaughter’s high school graduation in Oklahoma next week, attending other grandchildren’s baseball and soccer games and perhaps finding some work as a sports commentator.
“I feel like I’m in the fourth quarter,” Donnan said, “but I’ve got some time left.”