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A Little Rock attorney on Tuesday filed a notice of appeal to contest the felony hot-check conviction Saturday of a former owner of bankrupt Turner Grain Merchandising Inc.

The jury sentenced Dale Bartlett, 50, of Marvell to five years in prison and fined him $15,000 after a five-day trial last week in Clarendon. The jury returned its verdict Saturday evening. Circuit Judge Chalk Mitchell also ordered restitution of more than $401,900.

Jack Lassiter of Little Rock, Bartlett's attorney, said Tuesday that he had filed a notice with the state Court of Appeals.

Bartlett in July 2017 was charged with one felony count of writing a hot check for $401,900 to a Brinkley farmer for about 50,000 bushels of medium-grain rice. The check was returned by the bank for insufficient funds. Under the law, that is a Class B felony, punishable by five to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

The check at issue, Lassiter said, had stamped signatures of both Bartlett and Jason Coleman, the other co-founder of Turner Grain. Lassiter said there was no evidence proving that Bartlett applied the stamp. Coleman was charged in July 2017 with seven felony counts of writing a hot check but took his own life in January at age 44 while charges were pending.

Based in Brinkley, Turner Grain was closed down in August 2014 after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no grain in bins, contrary to certifications signed by Turner officials. The inspection came just days after talk circulated through the small farming community that Turner Grain checks were being returned by banks.

Many farmers were never paid, or were paid with checks returned for insufficient funds. In some cases, Turner allegedly was owed money by other grain buyers at the time it closed.

Todd Murray, the prosecuting attorney in the judicial district that includes Clarendon and Brinkley, commended the jury for its work on "an extremely complicated case due to the massive amount of documents which surfaced through years of litigation in state court and federal bankruptcy proceedings."

"Fraud can be so confusing" Murray said in a news release. "But the jury hung in there -- it's evident they took their oath seriously, even working on Saturday to finish this thing, and they exposed Dale Bartlett for what he really is -- a fraud and a crook. What he did rocked the entire farming industry."

Within two months of closing, Turner Grain Merchandising filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (later converted to Chapter 7), listing $23.8 million in debts and $13.8 million in assets. The debts later were amended to nearly $47 million.

Farmers filed claims seeking more than $40 million from Turner Grain entities, with lawsuits pending in Lonoke, Lee, Lawrence and Poinsett counties, among others.

Bartlett filed for personal bankruptcy, listing $5.5 million in debts and $2 million in assets. Much of his personal estate -- real estate, guns, coins and vehicles -- has been auctioned, with proceeds going into his Chapter 7 bankruptcy account. Farmers have hired lawyers to contest Bartlett's filing.

Of 47 "clawback" lawsuits filed by the court-appointed trustee to handle Turner Grain's bankruptcy in federal court, only a couple remain.

As allowed by federal bankruptcy law, the trustee, M. Randy Rice of Little Rock, filed 43 lawsuits seeking the clawback of payments Turner Grain made to farmers within 90 days of the grain dealer's bankruptcy filing. Federal law describes those payments as "preferential" payments -- at no fault necessarily to the farmers who receive them -- but allows lawsuits seeking their return for the benefit of all unsecured creditors.

A tally on Tuesday of those lawsuits showed that 29 have been settled, generating about $3.6 million for the Turner Grain bankruptcy estate. Those 43 lawsuits had sought total clawback of about $11.8 million.

Four other cases seeking the return of $215,331 have been settled, but those case files didn't disclose a settlement amount.

One case has been set for trial next spring in Helena-West Helena.

Three other clawback lawsuits filed against Turner Grain entities amounted to $98.2 million, and default judgments totaling $38 million have been entered in two of those cases. Trial has been set for next month in Little Rock on the third case, seeking $59.6 million from Ivory Rice LLC, a Turner entity. There is no indication those firms have any money.

Four more cases resulted in default judgments against farmers. One defendant went to trial and lost; another farmer went to trial and won. Three cases were dismissed. One was sent to arbitration.

Business on 11/06/2019

Print Headline: Convicted ex-grain dealer to appeal

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