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Trial pits Hall chairman against fellow farmers
Oliver sues cooperative over land sale
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Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver has challenged the leadership of one of the state’s largest farming cooperatives in a legal battle that has made its way to a Hall County courtroom.

Close to 20 farmers and board members looked on from the gallery, as jurors heard opening statements Wednesday in the trial of Oliver’s suit against AgGeorgia Farm Credit. In his lawsuit, Oliver accused the cooperative lender of failing to follow internal loan policies and breaching its fiduciary responsibilities in the 2006 sale of a Hart County chicken farm.

Oliver, an egg farmer and member/shareholder in AgGeorgia, wanted to buy the 90-plus acres of land with an investment partner after it went into foreclosure in 2005. According to court documents, the Hart County property was used by former owner Linda Alewine to secure a $1.3 million loan from AgGeorgia, on which she later defaulted.

According to court testimony, Oliver and fellow egg producer Don Stoner offered AgGeorgia Farm Credit $425,000 for the distressed property.

That offer was a "starting amount" that took into account only the value of the land, and not two large, multi-level chicken houses on the property, Stoner testified.

AgGeorgia officers ended up selling the property in May 2006 to Alewine’s brother, Jerry Rice, for $500,000.

Oliver claimed in his lawsuit that the price was "grossly inadequate," "substantially lower than its market value," and that shareholders of AgGeorgia suffered harm as a result of the sale, which was a "waste of AgGeorgia’s assets."

He also claimed in the suit that the sale constituted a "prohibited transaction with a loan-related party, favoring one shareholder over another without adequate consideration."

AgGeorgia President and Chief Executive Officer William H. Newberry Jr. and Executive Vice President Alton Thornton are corporate officers named in the suit.

AgGeorgia Farm Credit responded in court documents that Oliver doesn’t have standing to represent the corporation’s interests fairly and adequately since he tried to buy the property at below market value.

Oliver, according to AgGeorgia’s response, told the corporation that he would "only pay for the dirt" and not pay for the value of the chicken houses.

Under cross-examination Wednesday, Stoner acknowledged that the $425,000 he and Oliver offered would have been a "great price" for the land. AgGeorgia officials made a counter-offer of $900,000 which included the value of the chicken houses, he said.

But at the time, Stoner and Oliver believed they were among the few potential buyers who could use the chicken houses.

"We were not willing to pay $500,000 for the chicken houses," Stoner said.

Stoner testified that he was told by an AgGeorgia official in May 2006 that the farm was under contract to be sold.

"We were pretty ticked off at that point, frankly," Stoner testified.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2006. It seeks for the sale of the property to be set aside.

Board members who watched Wednesday’s testimony from the gallery appeared to be there in support of the defendants. Some nodded as attorneys for AgGeorgia Farm Credit’s corporate officers cross-examined witnesses. Board members came from across the state to watch the proceedings.

Oliver declined to comment on the litigation outside of court Thursday, citing the ongoing trial.

Testimony in the trial, which is expected to last a week or more, continues this morning in Hall County Superior Court.