TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — After two days of testimony and arguments, a federal judge will now decide if the two remaining defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case will go to trial or go free.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, and Margo Anderson, the former mayor of Lynn Haven, are accused of bribery involving city projects.
Finch, whose company did millions in construction work for the city for years, allegedly gave Margo and her husband an RV and took them on expensive trips. He is also accused of giving former City Commissioner Antonius Barnes more than $40,000.
Barnes took the stand Monday and said that he asked for the money as a loan from an old friend in order to start a business. He said he made it clear he would not “sell his vote.” However, Barnes continued to vote on Finch projects and never paid the money back.
Barnes also testified that he pleaded guilty to a banking crime in the case because federal prosecutors threatened him with more charges and prison time if he did not take a plea. That testimony appeared to visibly anger Judge Mark Walker who had accepted the plea. Federal defendants must testify that they are only agreeing to plead guilty to a crime because they are in fact guilty.
Barnes’ testimony to the contrary will now have some impact on the case although it is not yet clear what that impact might be. Moments after he finished testifying Monday Walker ordered that Barnes, his attorney, and federal prosecutors would hold an emergency hearing on the matter next week.
On Tuesday, prosecutors relayed to Walker that Barnes and his attorney had reached out to say that Barnes spoke “inelegantly” during his testimony.
“I don’t care,” Walker replied, adding that the hearing will go forward next week.
While Monday’s hearing featured a host of witnesses Tuesday was taken up by legal arguments and discussion between Walker and the attorneys.
The defense is asking Walker to throw out the case for multiple reasons including investigators allegedly lying to the grand jury, a failure by prosecutors to hand over evidence and they have maintained that Finch and Anderson are fundamentally innocent of the charges.
Walker cautioned that he had not yet made up his mind on a dismissal but asked the defense to prepare a list of proper responses to their arguments should he decide that some other remedy is required.
The defense argued that while they obviously believed the case should be dismissed Walker could instead throw out one or more charges, throw out some evidence or dismiss the prosecution entirely and demand that the government bring in a different team to take the case forward.
During his questioning, Walker said that he had already done “something unusual” in the case by allowing the defense access to grand jury material that is normally sealed.
“Very few judges allowed what I allowed in this case,” Walker said.
But that decision brought praise from Guy Lewis, Finch’s attorney, who said that there were a multitude of issues the defense would never have known about if not for the steps Walker took.
However, Walker cautioned the defense that in order for him to dismiss the case altogether they would have to reach a very high bar.
“It’s effectively got to shock the conscience,” Walker said.
Lewis, along with Anderson’s legal team of Anthony Bajoczky, and Robert Vezina, argued that Walker’s standard had been meet and that investigators lied during the grand jury process. The alleged lies involved trips Anderson and Finch took together. The defense argued that investigators told the grand jury that Anderson did not spend her own money while on these trips but that wasn’t true.
They referred back to cash withdrawals made by Margo Anderson and her husband prior to the trips.
However, Walker offered that investigators may make mistakes or be sloppy while testifying but that does not necessarily mean that they are lying in order to get an indictment. A lie to this degree would be along the lines of investigators targeting Anderson and claiming that she was given bags of cash when it was clear that she was not, in fact, given any money.
Instead, the grand jury heard that Finch took them on his private plane and paid for an expensive hotel room. Walker also offered multiple examples where a person on an expensive trip might have paid for some things with their own money but that would be irrelevant to the crime of bribery.
“Is that what tipped the scales?” he asked. “I’ve got to find that it substantially influenced the grand jury decision to indict.”
The defense also pointed out, again, that prosecutors failed to tell the grand jury that Finch and the Andersons were close friends and that he took them on expensive trips for years. Those trips happened long before Anderson became the mayor.
Vezina and Bajoczky argued that this omission was egregious enough to cross the line. Essentially, the trips were a normal part of the Finch and Anderson lifestyle and could not be bribes.
However, Walker suggested that Anderson’s election as mayor in a city “where she can push contracts” to Finch meant that the trips should have ended.
“It seems to me that timing does matter,” he said.
Prosecutor Andrew Grogan said any issues about the trips will be made clear to the jury.
“We do intend to have a comprehensive presentation at trial about travel,” Grogan said.
Walker often takes the opposite side in any argument so his statements during the hearing do not necessarily reflect his thinking. However, at least some of the defense arguments seemed unlikely to produce a dismissal.
“You could pick apart any investigation,” he said.
Another issue that the defense has repeatedly called to Walker’s attention is the alleged refusal of prosecutors to provide evidence that the defense should be given.
That again came into focus during the hearing when two more pieces of evidence were discussed that apparently were not disclosed. Those were notes made by witnesses that were reportedly handed over to prosecutors but have not yet been given to the defense.
Prosecutors have lamented that anything given to the defense ends up in the hands of the public. That also became an issue when text messages about City Commissioner Judy Tinder between Lynn Haven Police Chief Rickey Ramie and City Manager Mike White were revealed to Tinder.
“It is troubling to us the material that was being relayed to Mrs. Tinder by multiple people at her restaurant,” Grogan said.
However, while Ramie pointed out that the text messages were evidence in a federal case on Tuesday the defense reminded the court that they were released to the defense early in the process and were neither under seal nor under a protective order.
Ramie suggested that Finch gave the messages to Tinder, an allegation she denied.
Grogan also argued that the defense has failed to prove its allegations against the government.
“Nothing presented shows the government engaged in a vindictive prosecution,” he said. He also pushed back “on the proposition that there were any intentional lies.”
Another issue in the case that came up Monday was whether or not Anderson signed off on illegal Hurricane Michael-related invoices. City Manager Mike White testified that she did. Her defense team has maintained that White was the only one who signed those documents.
Lewis argued that the two-year history of the case shows that investigators and prosecutors have failed to meet the appropriate standard to move forward. He noted that they have been forced to go back to the grand jury multiple times to get new indictments and at one point they offered an indictment that, “wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.”
“Precision matters,” Lewis said. “It has to matter from their standpoint.”
Lewis also continued to make the case that another contractor, Derwin White, the owner of GAC who has since died, was the real criminal who was behind illegal activity in Lynn Haven. Lewis maintains that White set up Finch and Anderson who were actually whistleblowers in the case.
Walker later quizzed Grogan about White’s connection to the case.
“Is there any doubt that there were a bunch of bad actors in Lynn Haven?” he asked.
Grogan paused to consider it.
“I mean, there was a lot of corruption, your honor,” he said.