SHERMAN, Texas – A 34-year-old Dallas man has pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with a Denton County highway expansion project in the Eastern District of Texas, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston today.
Wade Wylie Blackburn, 33, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Christine A. Nowak.
According to information presented in court, from 2008 to 2011, Blackburn conspired with Kevin James Bollman to defraud the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT.) Blackburn and Bollman raised investment money and purchased Right-of-Way (ROW) along Interstate Highway 35 East in Denton County with the intent of quickly re-selling the ROW land tracts to TXDOT.
TXDOT acquired ROW through one of three methods: (1) Condemnation (normal acquisition); (2) Early Acquisition (EAQ); and (3) Advanced Acquisition (AAQ) through option contracts. The first two methods required environmental clearances before TXDOT was permitted to acquire the ROW and pay the landowner. The timing on these acquisitions, including the timing of the environmental clearance issued by the federal government, is unpredictable and often takes years to accomplish. The third method – the AAQ method through option contracts – permitted TXDOT to execute an option contract before environmental clearances were obtained, then pay the landowners a significant up-front option fee designed to keep the landowner from transferring or developing the property on the ROW that would later result in TXDOT likely having to pay more for the ROW. The landowner agreed not to develop the property in exchange for the up-front option fee, then closed on the sale and received the remainder of the purchase money after the environmental clearances were obtained.
As part of the scheme, Blackburn and Bollman intentionally caused false material information to be submitted to the TXDOT appraiser regarding, among other things, their development plans for the various properties. Blackburn and Bollman made these representations to the TXDOT appraiser even though they knew they had no intent to develop any of the properties. Blackburn also wrote a letter with material false statements to individuals at TXDOT. It claimed they were being forced to forego imminent development plans for the tracts, had been unable to successfully secure building permits, and were experiencing financial hardships as a result. Blackburn and Bollman also made false material oral misrepresentations to officials of TXDOT when they told them that they were experiencing financial hardships as a result of not being able to proceed with immediate development of the tracts, and that TXDOT should use the AAQ method to immediately purchase the tracts. Blackburn and Bollman made the material misrepresentations to TXDOT so they could ultimately benefit from the up-front option fee rather than wait for TXDOT acquisition by their usual course of condemnation. TXDOT used option contracts to purchase the tracts for higher prices than what Blackburn and Bollman paid for the tracts. Blackburn was indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2016.
“Government programs are designed to benefit the citizens, in this case, to build critical infrastructure to be used by all,” said Acting U.S Attorney Featherston. “Taxpayers must trust that state and federal funds for building roads and highways are being used and expended in a judicious manner, and not lost to greed and manipulation. Blackburn and others used a complex scheme to defraud the taxpayers, and in doing so, corrupted the process designed to build roads for our citizens.”
Under federal statutes, Blackburn faces up to five years in federal prison. The maximum statutory sentence prescribed by Congress is provided here for information purposes, as the sentencing will be determined by the court based on the advisory sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the U.S. Probation Office.
This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher A. Eason and J. Andrew Williams.