TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — During last week’s hearing in the Lynn Haven corruption case, the defense called on several contractors to testify about the investigation and, at times, on behalf of one of the suspects.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, and Margo Anderson, the former mayor of Lynn Haven, are accused by federal prosecutors of bribery in order to funnel city projects to Phoenix.
But according to local contractors George Roberts, Jerry Wilson, and Troy Syfrett, Finch is a man of integrity who never took or gave a bribe and who was too weak following a stroke to have committed one of the crimes for which he stands accused. All three say they’ve worked with and for Finch over the last several decades.
One key part of the testimony concerned Hurricane Michael. About 19 million cubic yards of debris were picked up and taken to debris pits throughout Bay County after the Category 5 storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid out more than $100 million for the cleanup.
Prosecutors say that in the aftermath of the storm Finch and Anderson demanded that Phoenix get its share. They say the pair held an October 31, 2018 meeting with city officials and ordered them to use a Phoenix debris pit. They did this even though there was, allegedly, a pit the city could have used which was closer and free. The decision to use the Phoenix pit instead of a free alternative pit was allegedly very lucrative to Phoenix.
The owner of the pit was paid for taking the debris. Also, the debris itself had value to the contractor who took it in.
But on the stand, George Roberts, the owner of Roberts and Roberts Inc. said he — not James Finch — was the one who worked behind the scenes to get the Phoenix pit up and running. Roberts also had a nearby pit that the city used.
“I mean, our whole intent was to get as much debris gone and out of the way as possible,” Roberts said.
He added that it made sense for the city to use those pits.
“We had good roads coming in to where the trucks could come and go in a timely manner, and, of course, that’s how those drivers get paid,” Roberts said. “So if that driver could take ten loads a day versus going to — over here to five loads a day, he’s making that much more money for his fuel.”
And, Phoenix and Roberts had men that manned them 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“They would rather have 25 or 30 trucks hauling to one place and make five to eight loads a day than go to a smaller place and make three or four loads a day with the same amount of trucks,” Roberts said. “And we were able to — I mean, James had a lot of tractors. I had a lot of tractors out there.”
While Lynn Haven used Finch’s pit, for the most part, Bay County did not.
“Following Hurricane Michael, Bay County General Services directed its monitor and contractors to use pre-approved debris disposal sites considered the most cost-effective and practical as outlined in their plan,” said Don Murray, Bay County General Services director in a statement to News 13. “Near the end of the overall debris collection mission, a subcontractor briefly used Mr. Finch’s debris pit but was instructed to cease because that particular site was not included in the plan. Shortly thereafter, all debris was hauled to the Bay County Landfill, and offsite debris pits were no longer necessary.”
Roberts also answered questions about why he would assist Phoenix construction get work when his company and Finch’s are competitors.
“We all have to work together. Whether it’s Phoenix or GAC or GCUC, any of our companies we — even though we are competitors, I mean, we don’t hate one another. We have to deal with it and we bid against each other every month,” Roberts said.
Even though they bid against each other the companies still rely on each other for work, Roberts added.
“I’ve worked for James as a sub (subcontractor) and he’s worked for me as a sub,” Roberts said. “Every, every, pretty much every contractor in that town has worked for me one time or another and I’ve worked for them.”
The contractors all noted that they have never seen Finch take or give a bribe.
“I want you people to understand something,” Wilson testified that he told investigators. “James Finch is innocent.”
In previous court filings and statements to the court on the case, Finch’s defense attorneys have said that Phoenix had much larger jobs outside the City of Lynn Haven and that Finch, because he is a lifelong resident, was very generous to the city. That included paying for the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display for four decades.
“He’s given more money to the city of Lynn Haven than he’s ever made,” Wilson testified.
The contractors also took issue with the idea that Finch could have directed any meeting at all on October 31. He had just suffered a stroke, which the defense maintains caused a coma. They claim he’d only recently been discharged from the hospital and, even though he was home, Finch was a long way from being fully recovered.
“Well, I saw him the day after, and several days there he was out of it and, you know, not just confused; he was — his family was driving him around. And I saw him at his shop and he didn’t really, you know, recognize me,” Syfrett said. “He was talking. He was around, but he wasn’t, you know, in any kind of a state of mind that I was used to seeing him in.”
Roberts made similar statements on the stand.
“He was not very coherent. I mean, you could tell that he was pretty weak. And he didn’t know what was — much of what was happening at the time,” Roberts said.
Finch himself could be heard making that argument to supporters in the courtroom during a break.
“This was the only time I thought I had an alibi that was good. A coma,” Finch said. “It wasn’t no damn good.”