Contractor not guilty of false pretense in Planters Hall case|[8/24/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Vicksburg contractor was freed Wednesday of criminal fraud charges in Warren County Circuit Court.

Freddie Parson of Parson Construction Company was found innocent of false pretenses in repair work he admitted was not done at Planters Hall, 822 Main St.

Parson was the only witness to testify Wednesday in the 1 1/2-day trial. He told jurors he ran into a problem when custom-built windows he ordered for the job cost more than three times the amount he’d expected.

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Parson’s attorney, Wren Way of Vicksburg, argued that the dispute between his client and the Planters Hall owner, Charity Hohm-Whaley, didn’t amount to a criminal case. Hohm-Whaley could have pursued the case as a civil matter, Way added.

&#8220She could’ve enforced her contract,” Way told jurors in his closing argument Wednesday morning. &#8220She chose not to do that.”

Hohm-Whaley had testified that she sought the help of authorities in the dispute because she did not have the money to sue Parson in civil court. She said she paid Parson about $11,000 in two payments for about $13,800 in work he’d promised on Nov. 12, 2003, to complete by Dec. 20, 2003.

Much of the initial payment was for materials Parson said he needed. Hohm-Whaley testified subcontractors of Parson’s did just enough work for her to pay them the second payment, of $2,000.

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Mike Bonner, argued that the evidence showed Parson took Hohm-Whaley’s money with no intent to perform the work within the time Hohm-Whaley said she needed it done, about six weeks from the contract date.

It is civil default when a contract is not completed and criminal fraud only if money is taken with no intention to keep a contractual promise.

Hohm-Whaley needed to bring her home into compliance with city historic-district regulations or lose her homeowner’s insurance and had employed Parson for prior work to the home, she said.

Hohm-Whaley used a home-mortgage loan to finance the work, told Parson her budget for the project and was taken advantage of by him, Bonner said.

&#8220He knew her; he knew her house; he knew what resources she had available,” Bonner said.

Among evidence that showed Parson never intended to do the work was testimony and documentation that Parson asked Hohm-Whaley for the $9,000 payment before speaking with the person in charge of the company that was to build the windows, Vicksburg Woodworks.

Way and Bonner agreed that the key question was Parson’s intent.

&#8220It’s up to you to decide if he really meant to do this or not,” Bonner told jurors of the work in the contract. &#8220It’s clear he never even attempted to do any of that in the time period” Hohm-Whaley had specified.

Hohm-Whaley testified she had tried to contact Parson about the contract but that he had been difficult or impossible to reach for about two weeks. She said when she threatened legal action against Parson he told her, &#8220‘You don’t know how the (court) system works. You may get a lien against my property, but that’s all you’ll get.’”.

She filed her complaint with the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

An investigator for that department, Jeff Crevitt, testified that Parson told him he’d used the money for other purposes and planned to pursue a loan to complete the contracted work. Parson confirmed that testimony Wednesday. He also, however, denied that he agreed to a deadline by which he would complete the work.

Parson said financing of the higher-than-expected price of the windows, at least $5,350 as opposed to the $1,600 he expected based on his reading of an initial estimate from the company, was the root of the problem and the reason so little of the contract work was done.

&#8220We talked about splitting the difference,” Parson said of himself and Hohm-Whaley.

Asked about the verdict afterward, Hohm-Whaley referred to her testimony about Parson.

&#8220He was right,” she said. &#8220He knows the system and he knows how to work it.”

Asked afterward whether he planned to complete the work, Parson said, &#8220That’s a civil matter like it should’ve been at first.”

Parson said he’d consider reopening negotiations with Hohm-Whaley on completing the work if she agreed to pay him at least $2,000, the balance of the $13,000 he said she owes him, plus half the current cost of the windows.

&#8220With all the attorneys’ fees and stress, I feel like she owes me after I have a not-guilty verdict, for what I’ve been through mentally,” Parson said.

Planters Hall consists of two structures, a main house and a carriage house. The dispute is mainly over proposed renovations to the carriage house.

Built in 1832 as the home of Planters Bank, the main house became a family home in the 1840s and was used as headquarters of a Louisiana regiment during the 1863 Civil War siege of Vicksburg. Hohm-Whaley bought it in 2002 and renovated the main house as a home for herself and her four children. She said she planned to rent the carriage house once it was renovated.