By Tia Lynn Ivey, Managing Editor
A Superior Court Judge recently rendered a $2.7 million judgment in favor of Bank Of America against Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative and its publishing partners, which includes the Lake Oconee News, a business with an outlying office in Madison. On July 2, Jones County Judge Hugh Wingfield III cast down a $2.7 million dollar judgment to be repaid to Bank of America by the company and its investors: Mark Smith, owner of Smith Communications; Joshua Lurie and Deborah Smith, owners of Jones County News; Walter Geiger, co-owner of the Herald Gazette in Barnesville; and Robert Williams Jr., Cheryl Williams, and William Davis, owners of the Monroe Reporter. The group is appealing the decision.
A separate suit was filed against Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative back in 2014. Judge Trent Brown rendered a summary judgment ordering the company to repay its loan from The Peoples Bank in the amount of $231,120. According to Ward Stone Jr., lawyer for Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative, the company is entitled to a trial by jury to present evidence the Superior Court of Georgia would not allow. Stone contends Bank of America took possession of the company’s assets too early, depreciated the value of those assets and “improperly managed the collateral while it was in their possession…for an entire year.” Stone does not “anticipate” Bank of America to take over any of the newspapers, but said, if Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative loses the appeal, it is possible for Bank of America to place liens on any of the newspapers owned by the defendants.
According to a story first published in the Macon Telegraph, Mark Smith and Joshua Lurie, who became managing partners in the enterprise and recruited the other owners and investors, formed Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative in 2010 “to lease printing presses owned by The Telegraph to print members’ newspapers and contract to print other publications.” The company later purchased its own printing equipment, established headquarters in south Bibb County on Industrial Park Drive, and took on about 15 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees. According to the Macon Telegraph, Mark Smith explained that the company closed in April 2014 after Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative “became plagued by printing quality issues” and lost business as a result. “We had a choice—either pay employees, buy newsprint or pay Bank of America. We couldn’t do all three,” Smith said in a deposition, the Macon Telegraph reported.
The ruling grants Bank of America the authority to collect the debt from all the defendants or target the defendants individually to repay the loan. Ward, the lawyer representing the entire group, told The Macon Telegraph, that “it would be devastating” if Bank of America were to attempt collecting the entire debt from a single defendant. Currently, Bank of America is seizing the company’s collateral—including the company’s property, equipment, furniture and printing presses.
The Industrial Park Drive property is scheduled to be auctioned off by Bank of America on Aug. 4.