PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Federal Judge Mark Walker took issue with the idea that the defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case were part of a single grand conspiracy and his doubts could derail the case.
Prosecutors have charged nine people in an ongoing corruption case involving government projects in the city. Five people have already pleaded guilty in the case while Phoenix Construction owner James Finch, former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson, former City Attorney Adam Albritton, and former City Commissioner Antonius Barnes are awaiting trial.
The defendants are chipping away at the indictment by seeking to get several charges dismissed. In particular, Guy Lewis, Finch’s attorney, is arguing that prosecutors have failed to show in their indictment that there is one single overriding conspiracy in the case.
Instead, there were seven different conspiracies and only four of them allegedly involved Finch.
According to filings by Lewis the Lynn Haven conspiracies are:
- A fraudulent invoice scheme concocted by Erosion Control Specialist and former City Manager Michael White.
- A Hurricane Michael trash pickup scheme.
- A scheme involving the disposal of vegetative debris.
- A disaster debris management site scheme that favored Finch and was done by White at the behest of Anderson.
- A scheme involving Finch, Anderson and Barnes to get construction contracts for Finch on the 17th Street Project and the 1/2 cent surtax projects.
- A scheme involving WorldClaim Insurance that is not connected to Finch or Barnes.
- A conspiracy involving Finch and Anderson and the rebuilding of Lynn Haven after Hurricane Michael.
Although he hasn’t officially ruled, Walker did seem to side with the defense during a Friday afternoon hearing.
“If that’s all it takes to be one conspiracy then anything that’s ever done in the history of a particular city would be one conspiracy,” Walker said. “Just because, quote, ‘it’s all public corruption’ involving the same municipality county whatever the division of government is.”
Walker also repeatedly asked prosecutors to explain in better detail how each of the defendants were part of a single grand conspiracy.
He noted that the indictment seemed to show that at least some of the crimes were with some of the defendants and other crimes were committed with other defendants and that there seemed to be no connection or knowledge of each of the crimes by all of the defendants.
Lewis drove the point home by pointing out that Finch was not involved in some of the deeds because he was in Tallahassee in a coma and then, “at home in Jacksonville in post-stroke, post-coma relief.”
Prosecutors have previously argued that the conspiracy began several years before Hurricane Michael with “Finch having his way with the city,” and bribing city officials to get contracts.
They also urged Walker to let them take the case to a jury who could then sort out who was responsible for what. But Walker seemed to suggest that the conspiracy — which prosecutors could not seem to explain verbally — was too broad to go to the jury under current case law.
What they did argue was that the ultimate evidence that would be presented at trial would show the full extent of the conspiracy.
However, Walker seemed to prefer removing some counts against the defendants and then moving forward with whatever was left of the case.
Meanwhile, Lewis argued that the entire case should be thrown out and go back to a grand jury because of the flaws in how it was originally presented. He noted that much of the case, including charges involving World Claim and ECS, doesn’t involve Finch and are “different types” of conspiracy.
Nearly half the indictment, Lewis said, deals with crimes that appear to have nothing to do with Finch.
Lewis also almost seemed to argue at one point that the corruption in Lynn Haven was just too massive and complex to take to trial. He noted that the indictment covers a 6-year time frame and involved more than 100 counts.
He ultimately pitched the idea of a legal do-over.
“I don’t know what it would like at the end who would be in and who would out,” Lewis said “I think the fairest and frankly most appropriate way is to dismiss the counts and let the government go back to the grand jury.”
If that were to happen federal prosecutors could then take the case back to the grand jury and pursue different charges. Or state prosecutors could pursue charges against the defendants.