A Gainesville business owner was found guilty Tuesday of falsely claiming government agents fined his business.
After fewer than 30 minutes of deliberating, the jury announced the verdict against Charles Ricky Tomlin, owner of Street Dreams, a vehicle repair and customizing business formerly located on Old Cornelia Highway and now located in Mount Airy.
Tomlin was found guilty of fabricating a story in which the Environmental Protection Agency assessed $272,000 in fines against his business. Prosecutors alleged the scheme was part of an attempt by Tomlin to avoid paying rent on the business.
The two-day trial was heard before Senior Judge William C. O'Kelley in U.S. District Court in Gainesville.
"I'm definitely pleased with the verdict, and it shows you shouldn't send police on a wild goose chase," said Paul Jones, attorney representing the federal government.
Attorney David Jones, who represents Tomlin, contended the jury's verdict and the government's accusations are false.
"I think the government failed to establish motive," he said. "They did Mr. Tomlin no justice."
The property's landlord, James Cape, previously operated a motorcycle dealership at the site and began leasing it to Tomlin in July 2010 for either $2,500 or $2,800 monthly. But Cape said he never received any rent payments.
The business' office manager, Rebecca Steele, also Tomlin's fiancé, testified Tuesday that Tomlin made repairs to the property that totaled about $17,000.
She said it was her understanding those repairs and various work done to vehicles owned by Cape and his family members were in lieu of the rent payment.
Investigators conducted an undercover investigation at the business over the course of two days in mid-November 2010 after Tomlin made the claims he was fined for violations including contamination of water and soil as a result of tires, batteries and other debris on the property.
That investigation began with the belief Tomlin was a victim of people posing as EPA agents and attempting to defraud him.
EPA Special Agent Nicholas Evans testified the investigation cost taxpayers more than $43,000.
Tomlin first contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Environmental Protection Division to report two EPA agents visited on two occasions and threatened fines up to $2 million. He told EPD investigators those agents were named "Robert" and "Tracy" but didn't give last names.
Prosecutors said Tomlin alleged "Robert" and another man named "Dean" visited again in a white Dodge pickup truck with EPA markings on the side.
Testimony from the defense Tuesday contradicted that.
"They came in the front door and asked for Rick ... they said they was from EPA," mechanic Dan Hoskins testifed. "They was walking around out back."
Hoskins, who was one of two mechanics from the business to testify, said the men were driving a black Chevrolet pickup.
Both witnesses testified they saw two men visit the business and walk around the premises during the time period of the investigation, but they were unable to say with certainty whether they were EPA employees.
Investigators became suspicious of Tomlin after he failed to record phone conversations with "Robert" or any other subject and falsely claimed the man pulled into an abandoned car wash adjacent to the property during surveillance.
"If a person is being shaken down for $2 million, they wouldn't forget to record calls," Jones said during closing arguments.
Sentencing is tentatively set for 10 a.m. Feb. 15. Tomlin remains out on bond with pretrial conditions until sentencing.