LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — Former Lynn Haven City Commissioner Antonius Barnes will be face to face with a federal judge next week to explain his recent testimony at a hearing in the Lynn Haven Corruption case.
Former Mayor Margo Anderson, James Finch, and Barnes are accused of bribery by federal prosecutors involving Lynn Haven business. Barnes eventually plead guilty to fraud on a related matter and prosecutors said he would testify that Finch bribed him.
However, Barnes took the stand Monday and said Finch gave him a loan while he was sitting City Commissioner but he was not bribed and he did not sell his vote.
“And that’s part of the problem with Mr. Barnes’s case, has he entered a plea of guilty, but then later said he was innocent. And a federal judge will not allow you to say you’re guilty, but then say you’re innocent,” said local attorney Albert Sauline. “There is no plea of convenience. If you plead guilty, that federal judge will make you state on the record that you did, in fact, commit the crimes to which you have entered a plea of guilty.”
Sauline is a local criminal defense attorney who handles state and federal cases. Although he does not have a client in the corruption case he has walked several clients through the same process Barnes now faces. He says Barnes may be headed into a major storm.
“But normally in federal court, everything is handled with white gloves. And, you know the consequences if you double cross the federal judge. … It rarely happens just because normally, a defense attorney will speak with the client and let them know once you enter this plea, there’s no turning back.” Sauline said. “You’re looking at a potential false statement, perjury to a federal judge.”
The attorneys and Judge Mark Walker are likely to examine in great detail the language Barnes used on the stand. At one point Barnes said he was in fact guilty of the crime he plead guilty to. But at another point, he suggested he took the plea because he was facing multiple charges and felt coerced and threatened by the prosecutors.
“So when a person later says, I was threatened. But you previously looked at a federal judge in the eye under oath and said, no, you weren’t. That’s a major problem,” Sauline said. “And I think that’s why there’s an emergency hearing this week.”
Also, Sauline said it’s normal for state and federal prosecutors to offer to drop charges in exchange for a guilty plea.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Sauline said. “It happens every day in the state and federal court system. It’s part of plea bargaining.”
Barnes’ testimony and next week’s hearing will also have an impact on the looming trial.
“I imagine that the federal government is very upset. It’s not just his case, but the chain reaction,” Sauline said. “Those U.S. Attorneys were planning on using Mr. Barnes testimony to convict Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Finch. If Mr. Barnes withdraws this plea, he has a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Suddenly, a major witness that the federal government was counting on for a trial just a month or two from now is no longer available.”
The trial will likely still go forward at some point but the prosecutors may have to pursue a different plan.
“That changes the entire trial strategy for the U.S. attorney,” Sauline said. “So not only are the U.S. Attorneys going to be upset that they were accused of forcing or coercing or threatening somebody, but they’re also going to be upset because this is a major wrench in the strategy.”
Through his attorney, Barnes already attempted to walk back some of his testimony on Monday. Prosecutors informed Judge Mark Walker that Barnes’s attorney told them his client had spoken ineloquently on the stand. It’s unclear if that will be enough for Barnes to keep his deal in place.
“It is possible, but you have to be careful because you’re almost advising a federal judge that your client lied because your client gave a statement under oath saying, ‘I was coerced, I was threatened.’ So if the defendant now says that’s not true, then I’m sure the judge is going to want to have a little chat with him and say, ‘Well, what other things have you not eloquently stated in court?’” Sauline said. “What other things may you have been confused about? Because if you’re confused about one of the most important constitutional rights that you have — whether to enter a plea or go to trial — that means you may be confused on a lot of other things that your attorney and you should have discussed.”
Sauline predicted it will be a tense hearing.
“You know, just that I think that next week’s hearing is going to be a very heated hearing. Emotions are high. Time is running out,” he said. “This case has already dragged on longer than any federal case that I’m aware of … And having an individual do this on the eve of a trial in which he is a major witness, I am sure is going to infuriate the court, and rightfully so.”
Barnes hearing is set for Thursday. The trial for Anderson and Finch is set for the end of February.