Auctioneer found guilty of fraud with bad checks

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 2, 2010

HATTIESBURG — A jury in Forrest County found the former vice president of Durham Auctions guilty Thursday on four counts of felony bad checks with the intent to defraud.

Jim Durham stood trial for writing more than $225,000 in bad checks for various types of equipment not delivered to multiple customers, including the Warren County Board of Supervisors, according to the Forrest County prosecutors.

A check received in 2008 to sell a surplus motor grader bounced, leading Warren County officials to investigate. Road Manager Richard Winans testified the county had done business with Durham and his father, Don, since the mid-1980s. Millions of dollars of surplus road equipment were sold through the Durhams’ company.

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Sentencing is set for 9 a.m., April 12 in Forrest County Circuit Court. Durham could face up to 12 years in prison.

In closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors pleaded for jurors to see Durham as a money-obsessed, irresponsible businessman who thought the law didn’t apply to him.

“You have an individual who takes enormous risk, runs a business into the ground and then says they are not responsible,” Forrest County Assistant District Attorney DeCarlo Hood said. “The rules don’t apply to them. … There’s always a victim left holding the bag.”

Arthur Lemann, Durham’s defense counsel, said the district attorney’s office never proved intent to defraud. He said Durham had nothing to gain from defrauding customers who frequented Durham Auctions for years.

“You have to decide… it’s all his fault,” he said. “He’s bankrupt, he’s lost everything, but you cannot find from the facts of this case that this man had an intent to defraud anyone.”

Hood told the jury a check returned for insufficient funds should be presumed to be fraud under state law. He said hours of testimony regarding bad business practices, overdraft agreements with banks and bankruptcy filings were nothing but smoke and mirrors used by defense counsel to cloud juror’s judgment.

Durham used an escrow account to hold revenues from auctions. The money should have gone straight to the seller, but it was instead used to pay off loans and investors, according to Durham.

“He never acknowledges that it wasn’t his money he was spending,” Hood said. “He can’t use their money if he has their money in that account, it should be there … they aren’t responsible for your bad business decisions.”

The auction company and Durham both filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008, Durham testified.

Ben Piper writes for The Hattiesburg American