Former University of Georgia football coach Jim Donnan made an especially emotional pitch when recruiting one investor for his business venture, federal regulators say.
"He capitalized on his influence over one former player by telling him, 'Your Daddy is going to take care of you' ... 'if you weren't my son, I wouldn't be doing this for you,'" the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil complaint filed Thursday.
The agency contends the venture, a liquidation business called GLC Limited, actually became a Ponzi scheme that defrauded some of its investors of millions.
The government said Donnan, 67, of Athens, and partner Gregory Crabtree, 50, of Proctorville, Ohio, misappropriated investor money that was supposed to be used to buy merchandise for GLC.
The complaint is the latest setback for Donnan, who coached the Bulldogs from 1996 to 2000 and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He filed for personal bankruptcy last year, in part because of claims stemming from GLC Limited, and that case was recently settled.
His lawyer, Ed Tolley, said Donnan is basically broke. He has no income, little chance of getting a job, and no way to pay back anything more, Tolley said. A bankruptcy settlement under which his assets will be liquidated to pay back creditors - some of whom may also be GLC investors - was recently approved.
"He needs to work, but nobody will hire him because of the publicity associated with this case," Tolley said.
Donnan could not be reached for comment Thursday. Tolley said GLC "was never intended to be a Ponzi scheme, nor was it."
The Securities and Exchange Commission filing is a civil complaint, so Donnan faces no threat of jail from it, only financial penalties. The U.S. Department of Justice could file a criminal complaint, but the SEC would not comment on that prospect Thursday.
According to the complaint, investors in GLC were promised "exorbitant rates of return ranging from 50 to 380 percent."
But, it said, of the $80 million raised from about 100 investors, only $12 million was used to buy merchandise. The rest went to pay fake returns to early stage investors, or was misappropriated by Donnan and Crabtree, the complaint said.
"Donnan and Crabtree convinced investors to pour millions of dollars into a purportedly unique and profitable business with huge potential and little risk," said William Hicks, director of the Securities and Exchange Commission's regional office. "But they were merely pulling an old page out of the Ponzi scheme playbook, and the clock eventually ran out."
GLC attracted investments from big names of the sporting world including other football coaches such as Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech, Tommy Tuberville of Texas Tech and Barry Switzer, formerly of Oklahoma and the Dallas Cowboys.
It also attracted smaller, unknown investors including the late Athens physician Stephen Fennell and his wife Valerie Fennell. They invested about $450,000, almost all of which was lost. Valerie Fennell is still trying to recover her money.
The SEC complaint said that to date, 61 creditors of GLC who claim to have been investors in the scheme have filed claims worth about $40 million against the company.
Even if Donnan has no assets, Fennell will be gratified to hear of the government's action, her attorney, Keegan Federal, said.
"I would certainly think there is some emotional, psychic vindication," Federal said. He said his client has heard from people in Athens who feel her case is sour grapes.
Tolley questioned whether the SEC was piling on without purpose.
"I don't know what they expect to gain from this other than publicity. I don't think anybody in the (Securities and Exchange Commission) honestly believes there are more assets that they can get from Jim Donnan. He doesn't have anything left."
The SEC said in its complaint, filed in federal court in Atlanta, that the scheme began in August 2007 and ran until it collapsed in October 2010.
Crabtree formed GLC in 2004 and began buying and selling liquidated merchandise. Three years later he began offering to to investors the chance to fund specific deals the company did. From that time to 2010, GLC sold $80 million worth of deals to 97 investors.
It described Donnan's role as the promoter - the man who brought in the majority of investors - relying on personal connections he'd made during his many years as a coach at Georgia and at Marshall University, and as a sports commentator.
The ex-player Donnan promised to "take care of" put in $800,000, the complaint says.
Separately, lawyers for former Georgia football player Kendrell Bell said Donnan got him to invest $2 million, saying the former coach had been a father-figure for Bell.
GLC supposedly was in the wholesale liquidation business and made big money by purchasing leftover merchandise from major retailers and then reselling those products to discount retailers.
Much of the merchandise that actually was purchased by GLC went unsold and was abandoned in warehouses in Ohio and West Virginia.
Donnan, who the SEC said told investors that he was investing right along side them, then used the purported success of GLC to try and attract more capital.
The SEC said that Donnan siphoned $7 million from GLC by the time of the scheme's collapse.
Two of Donnan's children, Tammy Donnan and Jeffrey Todd Donnan and Donnan's son-in-law Gregory Johnson, also were named as defendants in the complaint. The SEC said it seeks to recover " unjust enrichment" from them that was derived from the scheme.
The SEC said Donnan directed "large sums of investor proceeds" to them and that they, after investing "relatively modest" amounts in the scheme, received regular streams of payments for a "substantial" time that added up to more than $1 million.