The battle over the biggest asset remaining from John Rogers’ murky business dealings and insolvent ventures begins next week in Little Rock.
Creditors of the fallen North Little Rock sports memorabilia and photo dealer are lined up to stake their claim on the $1.5 million payout for the renowned Conlon Collection.
The Feb. 1-2 hearing before Circuit Judge Chris Piazza will determine who gets the money held in the court registry since the collection was sold at auction on Aug. 28.
While a mix of lenders, clients and business associates prepare to make their arguments over the Conlon cash in Pulaski County Circuit Court, Rogers is scheduled to appear in federal court to change his plea to felony wire fraud after originally pleading not guilty.
The hearing in Chicago’s U.S. District Court, postponed from Feb. 3 to March 6, will come more than three years after federal agents raided Rogers’ North Little Rock business and home.
The fruits of that fraud investigation are expected to yield a plea-deal sentencing for Rogers later this year, but no details have hit the court docket.
The Conlon Collection is absent from the abridged criminal narrative of several of his fraud schemes outlined in a Sept. 9 filing by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Bogus contracts, phantom deals, counterfeit memorabilia and forged paperwork were tools Rogers used to bilk investors, customers and banks as part of a Ponzi-style scheme involving “at least $10 million,” as noted in the federal case.
Known claims against Rogers associated with his shady financial dealings total more than $45 million.
Even his ownership of the Conlon Collection carries the taint of fraud.
According to court documents, Rogers sold or pledged interests in the collection that topped 100 percent. That math-defying trick was uncovered after creditors began stepping forward with their competing claims to the collection.
Depending on the document, Rogers paid $1 million or $2 million for the Conlon Collection and other assets in a deal with American City Business Journals Inc. of Charlotte, North Carolina. A 14-page photo ar-chive acquisition and digital library services agreement that appears to be genuine pegs the price at $1 million.
That figure is supported by bank documents regarding a $1 million wire transfer received by American City Business Journals on July 1, 2010, and the company’s accounting entry for a $1 million sale of the photo archives of its Sporting News subsidiary.
The Conlon Collection originally consisted of 8,354 glass-plate negatives when Rogers bought it. The inventory count stood at 7,462 when it was auctioned by court order last year.
“We expected the sale of the Conlon Collection to bring a total of approximately $3 million,” Amy Allen said in a sworn affidavit dated Dec. 29. “The actual sale by the receiver was disappointing.”
Allen is in the forefront of competing claimants with financial ties to the historic treasure of early 20th century major league baseball images produced by photographer Charles Conlon (1868-1945).
Her husband, Doug, arranged funding with an Illinois bank that appears to have financed the purchase of the Conlon Collection. The $1 million line of credit was held by Legendary Auctions, where Allen was president and CEO and Rogers held an ownership stake.
Doug Allen was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison last February in part for obstructing the criminal investigation of Rogers. The sports memorabilia auctioneer received the stiffer sentence after Rogers baited him into discussing past misdeeds.
Allen talked about how his negotiated guilty plea to one count of mail fraud would be threatened if the FBI knew he had tipped off Rogers about wearing a wire and a pending raid on his business.
This time Rogers was wearing the wire, and unlike Allen, he had no qualms about using the recorded conversation to his advantage.
Rogers still holds an 11 percent interest in the Conlon Collection, according to Amy Allen.
However, it is pledged to secure money Rogers owes to Legendary Auctions.
She and her family trust claim to own a combined 27 percent of the collection.
Some documents indicate Legendary Auction associates also held stakes.
The ownership percentages ebb and flow among Legendary Auction members in a mish-mash of agreements bearing dates between 2010 and 2013.
The earliest known ownership claim by an outside investor in the Conlon Collection is held by Mark Roberts of San Francisco. According to court filings, he bought a 25 percent stake from Rogers for $1.1 million in Oct. 21, 2010.
First Arkansas Bank & Trust of Jacksonville claims a security interest in the Conlon Collection as collateral on a $9.6 million loan made to one of Rogers’ businesses, Sports Cards Plus, on Dec. 19, 2011.
The bank holds a default judgment against Legends in Time LLC, which Rogers used to buy the Conlon Collection.
Judge Chris Piazza is tasked with sorting through the maze of legal arguments to determine how $1.5 million from the Conlon sale is distributed.