Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories we are sharing Thursday about the Lynn Haven corruption case. A status conference is scheduled in the case for Friday. That conference could determine how quickly the case will go to trial. A trial date is set for Monday, but that could be pushed back.
BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — The Lynn Haven corruption case is moving closer to a trial.
Below is a timeline of major events in the case so far. Information in the timeline is taken from courthouse filings, public documents and News 13’s coverage of the case.
News 13 began reporting on the investigation in April of 2019 when we obtained subpoenas sent to the city by the FBI demanding information on local companies Erosion Control Specialists and Green Leaf Lawn Care, and the former city manager, Mike White. The subpoenas also demanded testimony in front of a grand jury. This came shortly after Mike White was arrested for allegedly pointing a gun at his wife.
U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe formed the Public Trust Unit to investigate corruption cases in the North Florida District, which runs from Gainesville to Pensacola and includes Bay County.
Keefe’s office originally issued the subpoena’s to Lynn Haven.
After the indictments, City Commissioner Judy Tinder conducted her own research into the city’s spending. She named Erosion Control Specialists, Green Leaf Lawn Care, and a former City Manager as among those whose dealings with the city were possibly suspect.
After going through only six out of 200 files provided to her by the city, Tinder said she knew corruption was evident.
“We went to the companies that we have written huge checks to in the recent months and just started looking through those files. We looked through timesheets…timesheets where it said everybody worked 11 hour days with no breaks 7 days a week…things like that,” Tinder said.
In November 2019, federal authorities charged five people, including Mike White, Lynn Haven Community Services Director David Horton, Greenleaf Lawncare Owner Josh Anderson, Erosion Control Specialist Owner David Mitchelle White and Erosion Control Specialist employee Shannon Rodriguez, with several counts of fraud and money laundering for a total of $5 million.
While prosecutors did not charge several prominent individuals, they did connect them to the case. After three business leaders and two city employees were arrested, Lynn Haven City Manager, Vickie Gainer, issued a statement on behalf of the city.
“The city continues to gather information at the same pace this investigation is taking place,” Gainer wrote. “Mr. David Horton, has been charged with allegations of criminal activity. Mr. Horton has been suspended without pay until the city has had the opportunity to review the allegations. The vendor in questioned, Greenleaf Lawn Care performed lawn care services for the city. In light of the allegations with Greenleaf Lawn Care, the city will be reviewing their contract for possible termination.”
Tinder also responded to the arrests saying, “Our residents deserve this. The citizens of Lynn Haven have been lied to and it’s just not right. They can’t trust public office and that is not right. This task force that the folks have come up with has been needed for a long long time.”
Former Bay County Commissioner, Keith Baker, also issued a statement following the revelation that he took part in an all-expense-paid vacation that was funded by one of the indicted business owners.
“Erosion Control Specialists is not a past or present vendor of Bay County. In December of 2018, as a newly elected county commissioner, I was unaware of the requirements regarding reporting of gifts by elected officials,” Baker said. “I did accept a trip to Tennessee and will take immediate steps to rectify my failure to report that gift with the State Ethics Commission.”
Although these people were named in the indictment, they were not charged with any crimes.
Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson, who was also mentioned in the indictment, claimed she was innocent. She said that the work the indictment said was done on her and her mother’s home was actually done at an easement that belonged to the city.
“There was no work done billed to the city on my mother’s property nor mine. I have Google Earth photos of the properties before and after the storm,” Margo Anderson told News 13. “Neither of us had trees on our property. … The property is a stormwater easement maintained by the city.”
In the meantime, News 13 spoke with Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki who confirmed that they too did work with Erosion Control Specialists and GreenLeaf Lawn Care, the two businesses under investigation in the fraud scheme.
In February, Mike White, 46, David White, 39, and Shannon Rodriguez, 37, pleaded guilty to several charges in the corruption scheme. They face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on each count. As part of their guilty plea, the three agreed with the government that they had conspired to steal more than $1 million from city coffers and federal taxpayers during the clean up after Hurricane Michael.
About a month later, Joshua Daniel Anderson pleaded guilty, bringing the total guilty pleas to four out of five. He admitted to fraudulently billing Lynn Haven for more than $16,600 for lawn care services he claimed his company performed under a lawn care contract with the city, when in fact, all his employees were actually working on hurricane debris removal for another conspirator, Erosion Control Specialists (ECS) owner, David White.
In June, Baker was arrested and charged with workers compensation fraud, bid tampering, and official misconduct.
Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said Baker encouraged false bids on a demolition job from Erosion Control Specialists so that they could secure the project before going on to work for them picking up trash around Lynn Haven.
Baker submitted his letter of resignation shortly afterwards.
Baker, 54, of Panama City, owner of Tri-State Climate Solutions LLC, faced multiple criminal charges with Gregory Wilson, 48, of Panama City, owner of Greg Wilson Law LLC, Dennis Morin, 56, of Fountain, owner of Morin and Sons LLC, and John David Russell, 31, of Eclectic, Alabama, owner of Russell Endeavors LLC.
Horton originally pleaded innocent to having any knowledge of the criminal conspiracy when he signed off on the paperwork. He attempted to plead guilty in May, but said he only wanted to admit that he signed some of the forms without verifying that they were true.
In July, he officially changed his plea to guilty during a change of pleas hearing. He admitted he knew documents he submitted to FEMA were false and that employees who were supposed to be doing clean-up work were in fact working on other projects for the city.
All four suspects accused of defrauding Lynn Haven up to this point plead guilty.
On Wednesday, Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and City Attorney Adam Albritton were arrested of federal charges. According to Lynn Haven City Manager Vicki Gainer, Margo Anderson was arrested at her home in Jacksonville, Fla., and Albritton was arrested in Panama City.
Keefe held a press conference at the United States Attorney’s Office in Panama City where he said, “Sadly, the bottom line message that we have for the people of this community today is that we are back.”
“And I anticipate that we are going to continue to be coming back into this community.”
In an exclusive interview with News 13, the man spearheading the Lynn Haven corruption probe talked about the roots of the investigation and what he expected to happen going forward.
“A clear violation of a federal statute is apolitical. It is not partisan. It has nothing to do with personalities. It is all about the conduct. It is not about personalities and politics and other such things.”
As the case moves forward prosecutors and former city attorney Adam Albritton moved to delay the trial until May. Anderson said she wanted the trial to be held as quickly as possible.
Her attorneys argue that prosecutors don’t understand her role as mayor and that the former city manager really knew what was happening in the city while Anderson was in the dark.
In February, Keefe resigned his post as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. Keefe and nearly every other federal prosecutor appointed by President Donald Trump was asked to resign by the Biden Administration.
James Finch, one of the most high-profile business leaders in Bay County, along with former Lynn Haven City Commissioner Antonius Barnes was indicted by federal prosecutors on March 18. The men, along with other Lynn Haven officials were part of an ongoing scheme of kickbacks that funneled work to Finch’s company, Phoenix Construction, prosecutors said. These efforts were later stymied by current city manager Vickie Gainer.
Lynn Haven developer and Phoenix Construction owner, James Finch, talked about a number of facets of the case in March of 2021.
Finch called the U.S. Attorney’s indictment “misleading” and “slanted.”
“You’ve got the federal government coming in and saying there’s a big conspiracy, there’s no conspiracy out there,” Finch said. “In Lynn Haven, I’ve made a lot of money and I’ve had a good time in my life. But stealing from Lynn Haven isn’t something I want to do.”
After that story aired Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson responded about the situation on Facebook.
When a commenter suggested Anderson was wealthy enough to pay for her own legal bills she wrote that the case has been going on for 23 months so far and, “try retaining a white collar criminal attorney out of your account for that amount of time and see how long your account lasts.”
She also took aim at the federal prosecutors who charged her in the case, writing, “the grand jury system was intended to protect us from less than honorable government prosecutors, not to assume guilt based on hearing only selected evidence.”
Judge Mark Walker threw out a grand conspiracy charge federal prosecutors alleged against Anderson, Albritton, former city commissioner Antonious Barnes and Finch. The conspiracy also allegedly involved five other defendants (including former City Manager Mike White) who have previously pleaded guilty.
The defense successfully argued that the conspiracy charge was too broad. In verbal arguments, prosecutors failed to show how every part of their conspiracy connected back to Finch.
Adam Albritton admitted to the charges in counts 13 and 26 in the case. Those are wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. As part of the plea agreement, the prosecution has agreed to drop all other counts at the sentencing phase of the trial.
Albritton faces up to 20 years in prison on each count, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. Albritton is also subject to forfeiture of all forfeitable assets.
Finch wrote a letter after a report News 13 aired about Finch purchasing former Anderson’s home after they were indicted on corruption charges. In the letter he claimed that Anderson was the one who first pointed out the corruption in Lynn Haven.
“Margo Anderson was the whistleblower who brought the crimes in Lynn Haven to the attention of law enforcement, but that part of the story has been ignored by the media, and by the prosecutors. She’s the one that made the Sheriff’s Department aware of the activities of the people who’ve been arrested and who have since plead guilty.”
City Commissioner Antonious Barnes plead guilty to one felony count of fraud and agreed with the government that James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction bribed him. In court filings Barnes admits that he took money from Finch in exchange for votes in favor of Phoenix Construction getting a contract on the 17th street project.
Saying that prosecutors have once again overstepped by charging Finch with a conspiracy his defense attorney sought to have the entire indictment dismissed with prejudice.
During a hearing that lasted for several days Finch and Anderson laid out their accusations against prosecutors, investigators and other witnesses and defendants in the case.
The defense was hoping the judge would agree that prosecutors were reckless and perhaps even malicious and that they violated the law and their clients’ rights multiple times during the investigation.
Walker threw out Count 1, a conspiracy charge that tied Finch and Anderson to five conspiracies involving city work before and after Hurricane Michael. However, Walker did not dismiss Count 1 with prejudice which means prosecutors could, once again, get an indictment on this charge. And he left the rest of the case intact and perhaps ready to go to trial.