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General News Wed, 1 Jan 2003

Convict tells her side in Ghana rice scam

The case involves hungry people, millions of dollars, and fraud.

A local woman was convicted earlier this year basically of stealing money that was supposed to go to a rice mill project in Africa. But in a jailhouse interview, she tells Channel 2 that she is innocent.

One might imagine the stakes were high for people who needed food overseas, and for Juliet Cotton. She maintains she was denied due process.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says justice was done.

We've got both sides.

"I've been framed," says Juliet Cotton. "The proof is there at the courthouse now. The evidence is there. I got railroaded. I was railroaded. I have been falsely accused and I have been in jail away from my children."

"She was convicted essentially of stealing money that was to be used to purchase equipment for a rice mill project that was to benefit the people of Ghana," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Langway.

He said the total loss to the victims is more than $20 million.

The case involves a rice mill project in Ghana and millions in loans through SouthTrust Bank.

"We were going to take the rice-growing technology from America and show them how to farm on a commercial basis," Cotton said.

This project was to help make the country be self-sufficient in rice production. Cotton says a videotape backs up her claim that the project was for real.

"I only had $46 when I started this business," she said. "This was a calling for me to help feed people."

But the government, backed up by 35 guilty verdicts, suggests she cultivated fraud, and harvested millions.

She was convicted of bank fraud, making false statements and and money laundering.

"The people of Ghana are the chief victims," said the prosecutor.

Langway says something may have been built in Ghana, but nothing near what was supposed to be.

"Our project was a huge success," insists Cotton. "Nobody had ever done what we'd done in Ghana."

Langway disagrees. "To excuse yourself by saying I bought tractors with some of the money, therefore I'm innocent, is to ignore the fact that most of the money you spent on yourself," he said.

He says she funneled $9.5 million into her own pocket using phony invoices to justify payments to a firm called Agritech.

The prosecution says the evidence at trial showed that beyond a reasonable doubt Agritech was a fiction created by Cotton solely to obtain money from SouthTrust Bank by fraud.

Cotton maintains that Agritech was a real company. "They had a business license," she said. But she said she did not create the company.

Langway cited an invoice for nearly $2.3 million in services and expenses. He said not of the work was actually performed.

In our interview, Cotton suggested simply that she didn't sign for it. She says her signature was forged and that she said that during her trial.

The prosecution alleged more than $500,000 of that money went to a down payment on a $1.1 million house she bought within days of the first loan payout.

She says it was a guesthouse for overseas visitors and workers. "Me and other employees would come there when our flights were delayed," she said.

"Nobody lived in the corporate house but her and her husband," said Langway.

He said evidence showed more than a $100,000 in project money went to wedding-related expenses, including renting a helicopter to get her to the reception, and that cars were purchased worth more than %500,000, including a Mercedes, Jaguar and Rolls Royce.

And there was more. But Cotton says anything bought for herself was with personal money or salary.

She suggests a $1.2 million personal loan that would explain much was covered up by a banker.

"Everything that they charged me with is not true," said Cotton. "There is evidence down there now."

Meanwhile, the prosecutor says much of the $9.5 million is unaccounted for.

"There is a real possibility there is real money there somewhere," the prosecutor said.

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Source: ActionNews
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