LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — The defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case appear to be on the cusp of winning a major decision.
“I have every intention of dismissing Count 1 without prejudice,” Judge Mark Walker said during a hearing Monday.
Count 1 alleges a massive conspiracy involving former Mayor Margo Anderson, former City Commissioner Antonious Barnes, former City Attorney Adam Albritton and James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction. These four are awaiting trial while five other defendants, including former City Manager Mike White, have already pleaded guilty in the case.
The 40 or so other counts in the case involve wire fraud, honest services fraud, and bribery.
However, Finch’s attorney, Guy Lewis, appears to have successfully argued that the federal government’s logic was flawed when it took the case to the grand jury because instead of one massive conspiracy, there were seven distinct criminal conspiracies. Only four of them involved Finch.
The ruling, which is expected sometime this week, will leave the case in flux.
Prosecutors could move forward with what is left of the case, or they could go back to the grand jury. Double jeopardy is not attached to the case at this point, so federal prosecutors can keep the case, or state prosecutors could look for charges.
Walker suggested that prosecutors may want to start over.
“Does the government want to just try again? And I’m not saying y’all have to answer that question now…” Walker said.
Assistant United States Attorney Andrew J. Grogan said his office would need to review the ruling and then make a decision, although he added it seemed likely that the grand jury would be involved again.
“It’s possible, if not likely, that we would want to take another stab at the conspiracy allegations and how to charge them in light of the court’s ruling,” Grogan said.
It’s also unclear how the defendants will interact with prosecutors in the future.
“It may be wise to allow us to engage with the government briefly,” Lewis said. He added that Finch wants to take his side of the story directly to the grand jury.
“Finch has asked to testify in the grand jury… He’s agreed to submit to an FBI polygraph,” Lewis said.
In a separate issue, the defense attorneys and prosecutors are debating about when a bribe may not be a bribe.
The attorneys for the defendants argue that Finch’s generosity with the mayor of Lynn Haven (he allegedly gave her travel in a private airplane, lodging aboard a private yacht, meals, entertainment, and a $105,000 motorhome) and a city commissioner Antonious Barnes (he allegedly gave him a $45,000 small business loan that Barnes never reported or paid back) does not constitute bribery.
Finch maintains that Anderson is a longtime family friend, and he has known Barnes for years, that any gifts or loans were done out of friendship and not because he was trying to bribe city officials.
On one large project that Lynn Haven awarded to Phoenix Construction, Barnes was not present at the initial vote. If there was a quid pro quo, “Wouldn’t Barnes be present on the initial vote?” Lewis said.
Walker found that to be a compelling question for the jury, though perhaps not a reason for a judge to dismiss a charge.
“Mr. Lewis has my rapt attention if I’m on the jury. The standard is reasonable doubt and he just planted a big ol’ seed,” Walker said.
The defense team also argue that although Barnes and Anderson took these items from Finch and that they voted his way while they were supposed to be serving the people of Lynn Haven that there is no recording or other piece of evidence of them agreeing to be bribed by Finch.
“I look back at this indictment and there’s where I think the fatality lies,” Lewis said. He added that the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously sided with his argument in the past. He also noted that lawyers can take judges to dinner and contribute to their campaigns, even if they have business before the court, and not fear being brought up on bribery charges.
However, Walker suggested that the difference between those actions and what the defendants are accused of may be one of size.
“What you couldn’t do though, is give me, if you had a huge case pending before me in state court you couldn’t let me use your beach house on St. George’s Island for free,” Walker said. “Isn’t it functionally different if I give you a $250,000 RV for a $1,000 bucks?”
Prosecutors added that the level of evidence the defense maintains is required for the case to move forward is not actually what the law states.
“It would be kind of foolish to say I will give you a bag of cash if you vote for me,” Grogan said. “The law doesn’t require that kind of foolish specificity.”
A trial in the case was scheduled for later this week, but instead, after Walker issues his ruling, a follow-up hearing will be held in September.