A Gwinnett County jury ruled late Friday that a Duluth woman must pay $7.2 million for squandering on a fancy house, clothes and furs money that was supposed to start a rice plantation in poverty-stricken Ghana.
The jury deliberated for six hours before ruling against Juliet Cotton, 37, in a lawsuit that has caught the attention of the FBI, IRS and the people and government of Ghana.
Cotton was ordered to repay Quality Grain, the company that she founded to launch the African venture.
She showed no reaction to the jury's finding that she misappropriated company funds and now must give up a farm in Mississippi, her house in fashionable St. Ives in north Fulton County and her company stock.
Superior Court Judge Fred Bishop had not ruled by 9 p.m. on whether Cotton must turn over management of Quality Grain to the two investors who brought the suit.
In closing arguments earlier in the day, Cotton --- who served as her own attorney --- told the jury she didn't have the money to repay her disenchanted investors.
"You can't get blood from a turnip," she said.
Mike Dever, an Atlanta attorney representing Cotton's uncle, Oscar Hudson, and her former confidant, James McGarrh, told the jury: "The eyes of a developing nation in west Africa have been on this courtroom this week."
In the 1990s, Cotton's Quality Grain was supposed to develop a 20,000-acre plantation in Ghana, with loans backed by that country's government and with much smaller investments from Hudson and McGarrh.
Only a few hundred acres were planted, and that rice reportedly rotted in the field.
Dever said the people of Ghana are the real victims.
"There is $21 million down the tube and not a grain of rice to show for it," he said. "It (a ruling against Cotton) will give the company legal standing to go to Ghana and salvage the project."
Cotton told the jury Hudson never went to Ghana until she secured $21 million in bank loans and he saw an opportunity for profit.
"Greed is the only reason he finally got over his fear of flying," she said.
Checks written by Cotton on the company bank account were spent to buy a $1 million-plus house in Duluth, two Mercedes, a Jaguar and designer clothes, according to records entered into evidence.
She drew a salary of $830,000 in one year. Cotton told the jury that she received that after six years as company president.
"That's not even $200,000 a year in income," she told the jury.
Cotton testified that most of the purchases were needed for her company, Quality Grain.
The house in exclusive St. Ives was a company guest house, the cars were company vehicles, and the Armani clothes were company uniforms, she testified.
"She has more excuses than a dog got fleas," Hudson said outside the courtroom before the jury verdict.
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