Judge throws out major charge in Lynn Haven corruption case

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Federal Judge Mark Walker threw out a major portion of the case against four defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case Thursday.

However, much of the case remains and prosecutors can still seek a new path forward.

The move was expected given the verbal arguments held on Friday and Monday in front of Walker. News 13 exclusively reported on those arguments shortly after they occurred.

At issue was the grand conspiracy case federal prosecutors have alleged against former Mayor Margo Anderson, former city attorney Adam Albritton, former city commissioner Antonious Barnes and James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction. The conspiracy also allegedly involves five other defendants (including former City Manager Mike White) who have previously pleaded guilty.

Finch’s attorney, Guy Lewis, successfully argued that the conspiracy charge was too broad. He wrote that Lynn Haven actually was plagued by seven possibly criminal conspiracies and that his client could only legally be charged in four of them.

In verbal arguments, prosecutors failed to show how every part of their conspiracy connected back to Finch. In his ruling, Walker named the five following “projects.”

Here is how he described them:

  1. 17th Street: Finch bribed Anderson (the mayor) and Barnes (a city commissioner) to support his projects with the City of Lynn Haven. In addition, Finch obtained one of those projects, the 17th Street project, through a bid rigging agreement with other companies—including Company A (GAC Contractors Inc.).
  2. ECS: Erosion Control Specialists (ECS) bribed Michael White (the city manager), Anderson, and Albritton (the city attorney) and received hurricane cleanup and trash pickup contracts in return. ECS also submitted false invoices and, when those invoices were paid, paid kickbacks to Albritton.
  3. Debris Disposal: Unbeknownst to the City, Company A employed Albritton. Albritton directed city contractors to use Company A’s property to dispose of debris. After a meeting with Anderson, Finch, White, and the owner of Company A, Anderson directed companies C and D to dispose of debris at one of Finch’s properties. Anderson also vetoed White’s plan to designate city owned property as a disposal site and secured state government support for a plan to use Finch’s site. At the same time, Anderson accepted things of value from Finch.
  4. WorldClaim: WorldClaim, a public adjusting firm, approached Individual A, a contract engineer with the City, with a proposal: help us get a contract assisting the City with its hurricane claims and we will give you a percentage of whatever we recover. Individual A, in turn, approached Anderson and White, offering free services from WorldClaim. Anderson and White signed an agreement with WorldClaim using Anderson’s post-hurricane emergency powers. WorldClaim, in turn, provided them free or reduced services.
  5. Rebuild: After Hurricane Michael, the City had to rebuild many of its facilities. Finch bribed Anderson for inside information and to exert pressure on city officials to aid Finch in obtaining the rebuild project at a significantly higher cost than the City would pay through its already planned rebuild project.

Walker wrote that three alleged schemes connected to Finch and Anderson form one conspiracy. However, their connection to World Claim and ECS are not clear.

“The Government, when asked what ties these “spokes” to the larger wheel, argued that the charged conspiracy might be better thought of as a spider web. … Still, all strands in the web must support each other, and to do so they must be somehow connected,” Walker wrote. “Here, while partially spun by the same spiders, the alleged webs sit in opposite corners of the Lynn Haven garage. Given the opportunity, the Government could identify no facts alleged in the Superseding Indictment tying the World Claim or ECS schemes to the remaining allegations.”

He added that there is no allegation that Finch had any knowledge of the ECS and World Claim schemes.

In other motions before the court, Anderson had hoped Walker would throw out five counts against her. He denied that motion but did order prosecutors to provide more information to the defense about the nature of those charges.

The defense has also argued that prosecutors have failed to show the “quid pro quo” to support multiple counts against each of the four defendants. Walker rejected most of these arguments in a step-by-step explanation of the charges.

“The Superseding Indictment sufficiently alleges a quid pro quo as to all three Defendants,” Walker wrote. “First, that Finch gave Barnes bribes disguised as loans in exchange for Barnes’s support in the city council. Second, that Anderson agreed to provide official acts for Finch, supporting his involvement in the 17th Street, Debris Disposal, and Rebuild projects in exchange for items of value including travel and a motorhome. Third, that Anderson agreed to provide official acts supporting ECS, including authorizing payments and additional contracts, in exchange for services worth approximately $48,000. Fourth, that Anderson agreed to sign a contract, using her emergency powers as mayor, with WorldClaim in exchange for free services. And fifth, that Albritton agreed to help ECS obtain a trash pickup contract with the city in exchange for free services and kickbacks.”

However, in one section he did note that while the prosecution could move forward it was no guarantee that the case would be successful.

“To be sure, the Government may not be able to prove a quid pro quo existed between any of the Defendants on such thin evidence,” Walker wrote.

He did dismiss two of the charges against Albritton but left 12 others in play.

Double jeopardy is not yet attached to the case so federal prosecutors could return to the grand jury and seek a new indictment based on the conspiracies that are, in Walker’s eyes, connected to each other. Or they could seek to firm up their grand conspiracy theory with more details and try to move forward once again with one massive case — though that seems unlikely.

The case was scheduled to go to trial on Monday, August 16th but the trial was postponed until September 27. However, given these rulings that date is unlikely. At their hearings attorneys referred to it as a “placeholder” date.

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