A federal jury last Friday acquitted a Tennessee appraiser accused of inflating the value of a state senator’s lumber mill, a verdict that could slow any government pursuit of new charges in a case laced with political connections, media reports said.

The appraiser, James B. Passons, 61, declined to comment after the verdict as he hugged relatives and friends outside the courthouse, Associated Press reported.

Passons admitted on the stand that he prepared an inflated appraisal of a lumber mill owned by state Sen. Jerry Cooper, (D-Smartt), but with assurances by Cooper that the appraisal would only be used to show the projected value of the property with a planned rail spur, reports said.

“My error was in trusting Jerry Cooper,” Passons testified, according to reports.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble had argued to jurors that Cooper used that inflated appraisal and his political connections with Lt. Gov. John Wilder and former economic development commissioner Bill Baxter in a borrowing scheme, reports said.

Humble told jurors that Cooper called Wilder, who is on the board of directors of BankTennessee, and faxed to the bank Passons’ appraisal to line up a $1.7 million loan that allowed an Alabama couple to buy the mill, reports said.

The prosecutor said Cooper then received help from Baxter, now a Tennessee Valley Authority board member, in arranging a $485,000 state loan that was allegedly not repaid, media reports said.

AP reported that defense attorney Mike Galligan said in closing arguments that while Humble was talking about political influence in the borrowing scheme that was central to the charges, the government decided to go after the “little appraiser.”

Cooper and Wilder, both Democrats, and Baxter, a Republican, aren’t charged in the case, reports said.

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