TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMMB) — A three-day hearing in the Lynn Haven corruption case that a federal judge described as extraordinary concluded Wednesday in Tallahassee.
Defense attorneys for former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, continued to attack the bribery and fraud charges against them.
The attorneys took issue with actions by investigators, statements to the grand jury and the actions of one witness, former prosecutor Greg Wilson.
They alleged that Wilson was used as an informant by the FBI and used to get information about the defense in violation of attorney-client privilege. It is a claim that FBI Agent Lawrence Borghini denied on the stand Wednesday.
But, in another extraordinary moment, Borghini, the lead investigator on the case, testified that he was unaware federal prosecutors had called Finch, and Derwin White, the co-owner of GAC Construction, the quote, ‘goal’ of the investigation.
Prosecutors made the statement to a grand jury in June of 2020. But in July of 2020 Borghini told Finch he was only a witness.
It is “pretty important that the lead investigator of a federal agency … did not know that Mr. Finch was a target,” Judge Mark Walker said later in the hearing.
In another unique moment, Borghini testified that Wilson, a former prosecutor, came to him with information about alleged corruption at the State Attorney’s Office. Borghini said he took all of Wilson’s information and filed it away for a possible future investigation into the office.
However, that investigation never moved forward, he said. The defense also brought up an “untrue” claim Wilson had made that Finch had hired a private investigator to record who was coming and going from the FBI office in Panama City and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in Lynn Haven.
Borghini did not answer as to whether or not he believed that claim but did say he never investigated the issue further.
Guy Lewis, Finch’s attorney, took issue with Borghini’s handling of the matter. He noted that Borghini never made Wilson fill out a form that said he waived his rights before talking to the FBI. Borghini countered that Wilson, an attorney, and former law enforcement officer, was well aware of his rights. He added that he believed Wilson had filled out the form on the same day while in the custody of the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.
Lewis also said that Borghini’s reports in the case sat idle, and in some cases were not properly filed for nearly two years.
What impact these issues will have on the case is unclear. The defense is hoping Walker will agree that prosecutors were reckless and perhaps even malicious and that they violated the law and their clients’ rights multiple times during the investigation. If he agrees he could throw the entire case out with prejudice.
However, Walker said multiple times that he was allowing the defense to investigate the usually secret and sealed grand jury process in order to “preserve the record” for future appeals. Walker also suggested multiple times that attorneys should not look to his comments during the proceeding for any indication of what he actually thought about the issues in the case.
His thinking did seem to be on display during a presentation by Tony Bajoczky, Anderson’s attorney.
Bajoczky argued that while a company working for the city did do work at her house after Hurricane Michael it did not mean she had broken the law. The work was done at an easement connected to her property and was a city responsibility, he said. He also added that all city employees had free work done at their homes under the direction of City Manager Mike White, Bajoczky said.
At another juncture, Bajoczky argued that it was Anderson’s husband, Lee, who purchased an RV from Lynn Haven City Employee Chris Forehand.
He said Lee Anderson’s name is on the registration and that Lee asked his close friend, James Finch, to finance the deal.
Although prosecutors have repeatedly described this as a bribe from Finch to Margo Anderson Bajocsky suggested they were unfairly tying Margo to Lee even though she may not have always known what he was doing.
But Walker noted that the RV was community property regardless of who’s name is on the paperwork.
“If somebody gave my wife (an expensive) RV and then I rule in their favor I’m certain I would be impeached,” Walker said.
Anderson’s defense team also said multiple times that she is the whistleblower in the case. They note that she came forward with documents about illegal billing to the city for work done during Hurricane Michael.
The team is arguing that while Anderson signed off on checks written by the city twice a month she was not in charge of the process. Lynn Haven, they noted, is a city manager-run government and the Mayor essentially is a figurehead, a voting member of the commission and mostly just offers a rubber stamp to the finances.
However, once Anderson became aware of the malfeasance she took documents to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. The agency partnered with the FBI and began its investigation three days later. Prosecutors counter that the investigation actually began when City Manager Mike White was arrested in a domestic abuse case and investigators spotted suspicious texts on his phone.
Walker also countered the “whistleblower” argument by suggesting what he expects prosecutors will say.
In cases like these, when an investigation begins, the guilty party, “realizes the gig is up and she rushes to provide documents,” Walker said. He added that this behavior is not necessarily proof of innocence but is “sometimes evidence of a guilty mind.”
Both sides now have several weeks to file paperwork connected to these hearings. Walker will then be able to rule on the issues in mid to late May.