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J.T. Turner bankruptcy discharged, but criminal charges still possible

  • Jim Turner, right, is the founder and president of JT Turner Construction Company while his son Tripp is the Chief Operating Officer. Tripp Turner is not included in the bankruptcy filings. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • In his office filled with sports memorabilia, Tripp Turner, right, talks with his dad, Jim Turner, the founder and president of the construction company. The younger Turner is not included in the court filings. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)

More than two years after he filed for bankruptcy protection, longtime Savannah construction company owner James T. “Jim” Turner has been granted a discharge of his debts by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

Chapter 7, which Turner filed, is designed for debtors in financial difficulty who do not have the ability to pay their existing debts. Its purpose is to have those debts legally discharged by the court.

At the time of his filing in 2015, Turner listed personal assets of just over $2 million and liabilities - mostly business-related - of $19.2 million, leaving many Savannah contractors, banks and other creditors with large losses.

In his order dated June 8, Judge Edward J. Coleman III relieved Turner – the sole petitioner – of the legal responsibility to pay those debts, the vast majority of which remained unsecured.

Days before Coleman’s order, two outstanding suits filed by Savannah attorney Daniel Jenkins on behalf of Turner creditors were quietly settled for undisclosed amounts.

Those suits were filed for two homeowners who claimed they paid Turner hundreds of thousands of dollars in good faith that was supposed to be used by Turner’s company to purchase materials and pay subcontractors as he was building their custom homes. Turner supplied the clients with sworn certifications that the bills had been paid when, in fact, no such payments had been made, they said.

In a number of instances, the creditors had to “double pay,” directly paying subcontractors and vendors amounts they had already paid Turner in order to get their work completed and avoid liens on their properties.

In their suits, the homeowners accused Turner of theft, embezzlement, wire and mail fraud and racketeering.

In March, Coleman ruled on the suits, dismissing some allegations but ruled that some of the more serious accusations were sufficiently bolstered by evidence to go forward.

Not long after, as Jenkins was reportedly preparing the case for trial, the suits were settled.

Jenkins would not comment on the nature or amount of the settlement, nor would he speculate on where the settlement funds came from.

Not out of the woods

While relieving Turner of responsibility for the vast majority his debts, Coleman’s ruling pointed out that his order does not close or dismiss the case.

Indeed, rumblings of potential criminal charges began more than a year ago, when it appeared that the Savannah office of the FBI had opened an investigation into the business dealings of J.T. Turner Construction Co., based on a letter sent to several of Turner’s creditors by an FBI “victim specialist,” giving them a case number and asking that they contact her.

In February of last year Gene Cowell, then supervisory senior resident agent in the FBI’s Savannah office, confirmed that letters had gone out, but would neither confirm nor deny that Turner’s business practices were under investigation.

Philip Wislar, who took Cowell’s place as supervisory senior resident agent in Savannah, reiterated Cowell’s remarks.

“We don’t confirm or deny any investigation that may or may not exist,” he said.

Still, the rumblings persist. If anything, they have grown louder, especially after Coleman refused to dismiss charges of fraud, willful and malicious injury, violations of the Rackateer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), money laundering and mail fraud in the adversary cases.

The fact that the civil suits are settled does not preclude the Justice Department from looking at the possibility that a crime or crimes were committed. Although several interested parties have noted the presence of U.S. attorneys at some proceedings, that organization was typically mum when contacted last week.

“We don’t comment on whether or not an investigation even exists,” said James Durham, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

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WHOM DID TURNER OWE?

Although the order discharging debt in longtime Savannah builder James T. “Jim” Turner’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing did not disclose how much money, if any, was finally paid to creditors, the original list of more than 100 creditors included major banking and credit institutions, homeowners, suppliers, contractors and more. Among the substantial amounts owed:

South State Bank (formerly Savannah Bank): $6.7 million

First Chatham Bank: $3.6 million

Ameris Bank: $756,000

American Express: $620,000

The Heritage Bank: $541,000

Bank of the Ozarks: $250,000

BB&T — $100,000

Guerry Lumber: $165,000

HomeSouth Architectural: $131,000

McCarthy Inc.: $112,000

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