If they haven’t done it already, federal prosecutors are going to meet with the defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case and ask them questions that will most likely change the course of their lives.
“They are going to go to every one of them and say, ‘tell us everything you know,’” said local attorney Al Sauline. “It’s very tense. ‘Do I save my friends and family or myself?’”
On Tuesday Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford joined U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe in laying out a federal indictment against five people. They are former City Manager Mike White, now suspended Community Services Director David Horton and Greenleaf Lawncare Owner Josh Anderson, Erosion Control Specialist Owner David Mitchelle White and Erosion Control Specialist employee Shannon Rodriguez.
Investigators said the group bilked city and federal taxpayers out of about $5 million dollars in the weeks after Hurricane Michael by filing fraudulent invoices and other forms for work that was never done. Each of them are charged with several counts of fraud and one count of money laundering.
The suspects in this case will be dealt with in the same way the federal government deals with the mafia, Sauline said. He compared it to The Sopranos, where one individual in the crime family was told they could cooperate with the government, wear a wire and testify against the other criminals. The person who did this would get a reduced sentence.
“Do they keep their mouth shut or do they sing?”Al Sauline
“You can wear a wire and live to see your children grow up and see your wife,” Sauline said. “I don’t get the sense these individuals are as loyal as people who are in true organized crime. Do they keep their mouth shut or do they sing?”
The deck is almost completely stacked against them. Federal prosecutors have a conviction rate that is nearly 100 percent. And in the federal system suspects are not arrested unless the prosecution has what amounts to an iron-clad case.
Sauline, who has defended suspects in the federal system, said he could not remember the last time any local suspect was found not guilty.
For the most part, defense attorneys “tell the individual the fed government does not make a case and arrest someone unless they already can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Perhaps, there is a technical issue and evidence can be suppressed, Sauline said, but those instances are rare.
And while things are grim for the people indicted in the case, Sauline says others mentioned in the indictment could also be facing serious trouble.
“The attitude of most of the prosecutors in federal court, because they know how strong of a case they have … is ‘would your client like to enter a plea and go to prison now or would you like to go to trial and then go to prison.’” Sauline said.
“I think they need to be very concerned,”Al Sauline
Baker was identified as an individual who took part in an all-expenses-paid trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that was funded by Erosion Control Specialist Owner David Mitchelle White.
The indictment identifies four other individuals; Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson, City Commissioner Dan Russell, City Attorney Adam Albritton and Bay County Commissioner Keith Baker. None of them are charged with a crime. However, the indictment states that Erosion Control Specialists performed work at the home of Mayor Margo Anderson and her mother, in the gated community where Dan Russell lives and at the home of City Attorney Adam Albritton. The indictment adds that work was done at other homes as directed by Albritton.
“I think they (the named but not charged individuals) need to be very concerned,” Sauline said.
In what appears to be a positive situation, the indictment also mentions current City Manager Vickie Gainer. However, it says Gainer spotted a fraudulent transaction and stopped payment on the funds shortly after taking over from then city manager Mike White.
The near-perfect conviction rate is the most striking difference between federal and state court but there are several other differences. In state court, defendants almost always plead no contest, a way to accept the charges and the punishment without ever truly admitting guilt. Not so in federal court, where defendants must plead either guilty or not guilty.
In state court, a judge can and will accept a deal that includes exactly how much time in prison a defendant will serve. But federal prosecutors don’t offer written plea deals. The defendant will plead guilty and then be at the mercy of the judge who will then determine what the appropriate sentence will be. The system is set up in such a way that those who choose to plead guilty and cooperate rather than go to trial will usually see some kind reduction in their sentence, Sauline said.
The other major difference between state and federal court?
After the initial news conference prosecutors and investigators will not talk about the case. It is that way In every federal case. The same usually goes for the defendants. News 13 contacted the defense attorneys for all five of the defendants this week.
They all declined to comment.