Prosecutors say a Gainesville business owner fabricated a story about government agents charging him fines so that he could get out of paying his rent.
Testimony began Monday in the trial for Charles Ricky Tomlin, owner of Street Dreams on Old Cornelia Highway. He's charged with making false claims that he was assessed $272,000 in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency for violations at his vehicle repair and customizing business.
Jury members spent the first day of the trial hearing from witnesses for the prosecution. The case is being heard in Senior Judge William C. O'Kelley's courtroom in U.S. District Court in Gainesville.
Tomlin is accused of contacting the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Environmental Protection Division in early November 2010 to report two EPA agents visiting his business and assessing the fines based on debris, including tires and batteries, that had contaminated soil and water.
But after EPA agents investigated the matter, they alleged Tomlin falsified the claims to avoid paying rent on the business.
EPA Special Agent Nicholas Evans testified the investigation cost taxpayers more than $43,000.
The landlord, James Cape, previously operated a motorcycle dealership on the property 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.
"Not one dime," Cape testified.
EPD employee AJ Vaughn, who Tomlin initially contacted regarding the matter, testified she returned a message on Nov. 2, 2010, in which Tomlin said a man and woman claiming to be EPA employees visited the property four weeks after an open well behind the business flooded into the road.
Vaughn said Tomlin told her the two were driving a white Dodge pickup with EPA markings on the side.
The two allegedly identified themselves as "Robert" and "Tracy" but didn't give a last name.
Vaughn testified Tomlin further told her the self-identified agents scoured the property and discovered batteries hidden under kudzu and other debris, which could result in a fine of up to $2 million.
Prosecutors said Tomlin told them "Robert" and a man named "Dean" returned in the white truck and assessed the $270,000 fine three days after the initial visit. Tomlin told them during the visit the two men took photographs of the property and collected water and soil samples.
Vaughn also told the court Tomlin gave her three names of EPD employees he spoke to regarding the fines.
Among those was Frank Baker, Florida Watershed coordinator.
Baker testified when Vaughn contacted him, he knew nothing about the case and didn't recognize Tomlin.
He then became concerned he was a victim of identity theft and notified his supervisors.
"I've had identity theft in the past," Baker said. "I was concerned about someone going around by my name saying they were EPA."
James Laine, human resources director for the Department of Natural Resources, testified that the other names Tomlin provided were not those of anyone employed at the EPA.
In mid-November EPA agents conducted surveillance of Tomlin's business, looking for the identity theft suspects.
Witnesses testified they 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.
Tomlin claimed he wasn't able to record the phone conversations because they were either unexpected or he forgot, Evans testified.
During the surveillance, an agent acted as an investigator inside the business, while another agent was placed at a business directly across the street and others were in vehicles in the area.
EPA Special Agent Alan Huntsinger was inside the business across the street when Tomlin claimed "Robert" drove into the car wash. He testified there was no vehicle or person in the lot.
"I never saw a vehicle enter or leave that business," Huntsinger said.
The trial will continue at 9:30 today, in which the defense is expected to call witnesses.