LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — The first round is over and both federal prosecutors and the remaining defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case can claim some victories.
Federal prosecutors accused nine people so far with crimes connected to city projects both before and after Hurricane Michael. Six of the accused — including former City Manager Mike White, former Leisure Service Director David Horton, and, most recently, former City Attorney Adam Albritton — have pleaded guilty to charges in the case. In all of these pleadings, the accused have agreed to a deal with federal prosecutors to exchange information “of substantial value” in exchange for assistance with the other cases. If Judge Mark Walker agrees that they met the terms of the plead deal, he may, at his sole discretion, impose lighter sentences on those that have already plead guilty.
However, on the way to those guilty pleas Guy Lewis, a former federal prosecutor, now a high-powered defense attorney, and an oft called upon expert for the national media, was able to knock out a massive charge against his client.
Prosecutors had hoped to present the jury with one unified case that revolved around former Mayor Margo Anderson and Lewis’ client, Phoenix Construction Owner James Finch.
However, when asked by Judge Walker to articulate this conspiracy and how it connected all of the players, prosecutors could not provide a clear connection between every alleged scheme and every defendant. In some of the charges, it seems clear that various members of the conspiracy had no idea what others were doing, sometimes even working against each other as both Albritton and Anderson seemed to be advocating for different companies to receive valuable post-Hurricane Michael business.
In at least one case, it was physically impossible for a defendant to be involved. Finch was in a coma shortly after Hurricane Michael and was recovering out of the area for some time afterward.
Anderson and Finch, along with former City Commissioner Antonious Barnes have not wavered, so far, in their plan to fight the charges at trial. Numerous charges relating to both Finch and Anderson have been defeated, either via dismissal, consolidation, or removal altogether from subsequent indictments.
Nor have Anderson and Finch been quiet about the situation. Finch did an exclusive interview with News 13’s Chris Marchand about the case not long after he was indicted in March of this year. Before deactivating her Facebook account ahead of the trial, Anderson would frequently post, in all caps, “NOT GUILTY”, on news coverage of the ongoing investigation. On other posts, she has said she will have her day in court and will “present the truth for all to hear.”
Meanwhile, Lewis’ win before the trial even began has forced prosecutors to seek a new superseding indictment in the case. It’s unclear if any new charges, based on either new evidence or new testimony will be included in this indictment. It’s also unclear if any others, including former commission members, contractors, or employees will face charges.
Here’s how the conspiracies break down, according to a ruling from Judge Mark Walker and at least some of the defense theories that may appear at a trial or in filings before the trial commences.
In federal cases, attorneys on both sides refrain from commenting and clients, usually, won’t speak to the media either. However, News 13 can provide context for both sides of these issues based on court filings, responses during hearings, and discussions with people close to the case.
17th Street: Finch allegedly 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.). – Judge Mark Walker
Prosecution: Prosecutors have video evidence of Anderson taking part of expensive vacations and she and her husband received an RV valued above $100,000 from Finch. Barnes took a $46,000 loan from Finch to start a new business.
Defense: When is a bribe not a bribe? For the defense will surely argue that prosecutors are ignoring important context in this situation. Finch and the Andersons are old and very close friends. Anderson’s husband worked for Finch and Finch was best man at their wedding. It will also become clear that Finch often sold or gave away expensive items to the Andersons.
The loan to Barnes boils down to more generosity from Finch to someone he had known for decades. Also, the defense will almost certainly stress that the 17th Street project was unanimously approved by the commission multiple times and that prosecutors can’t (or at least haven’t so far) shown that Barnes or Anderson influenced those votes in any way.
Expect that the defense will show video from the meetings and that Anderson was always the last to vote, that her vote was essentially meaningless, and that she always pointed out that she and Finch were friends before she voted.
What may be harder to shake off is some of Barnes and Anderson’s actions. Anderson produced a receipt for the RV and she had it before she was indicted, even showing it to News 13 employees as we investigated the situation. But was the receipt made shortly after the sale and was it for the real price the Anderson’s paid? Or did it appear only when investigators began cracking down? There’s also the issue that Finch didn’t directly give Anderson the RV, instead, it was transferred through a third party, the City Engineer who is referred to by title only in the indictment and not charged with any crimes at this time.
Neither Barnes nor Anderson reported the gifts they were getting from Finch on financial disclosure forms. And, it appears from the evidence released so far that Barnes never attempted to pay the loan back.
However, Barnes was not even present the first time the commission voted on the deal. And, a previous Lynn Haven commission, one that did not include Anderson, approved the project initially.
Did Finch directly ask for anything in return for his generosity, or was he simply a long-time citizen of Lynn Haven helping out a pair of old friends? That is the question that likely must be answered at trial and, ultimately, decided by a jury.
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. – Judge Mark Walker
Prosecution: This is perhaps, the strongest part of the federal government’s case. David White, the owner of ECS, Michael White and Albritton have all plead guilty. Only Anderson remains. Prosecutors also have multiple eyewitnesses to the cleaning of Anderson’s property. It remains unclear what those who have plead guilty will say about Anderson.
Another issue for Anderson is what she knew about ECS activities as they were going on. Ultimately, she and Mike White signed the checks.
Defense: Anderson has made no secret of her defense in this part of the case. Essentially, she argues that ECS cleaned a city-owned easement between her property and her mother’s property. This is the same argument that former City Commissioner Dan Russell used when questioned about cleaning near his home. Russell has not been charged in the case.
Another issue expected to be hotly debated is just how much power Anderson had after Hurricane Michael. Traditionally, Lynn Haven is run by the city manager with oversight from the full commission. The mayor is little more than a figurehead and the only power she wields comes during commission votes that she can easily lose 4-1. However, Lynn Haven was under a state of emergency after Hurricane Michael, which according to the city’s charter, grants the mayor “command of the police and fire departments and govern the city by proclamation during the times of grave public danger or emergency.”
In essence, Anderson was the de facto head of Lynn Haven immediately after Hurricane Michael.
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. – Judge Mark Walker
Prosecution: Prosecutors will have White’s testimony on the issue. A civil lawsuit is already connected to this part of the case so other contractors may be called in to explain why city leaders chose Finch when they claim their method was better. A key component will most likely be why did the city choose to use a commercial disposal site for vegetative debris, at the cost of millions to the city, when they were using their own facilities such as Cain Griffin Park for free.
Defense: The defense has not yet begun to tackle this part of the case. However, historically Finch is known for defending his methods vigorously. He essentially won two civil cases this way, an underwater pipeline for Bay County and the construction of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. It would make sense for Finch to argue that his way was the better and cheaper way.
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. – Judge Mark Walker
Prosecution: Prosecutors produced an email and a contract that states that WorldClaim would handle Anderson’s hurricane claim pro bono after the city hired the company to do their public adjusting work.
Defense: Although it hasn’t been litigated in public yet it will be interesting to learn what else was written down about this situation. It should also be noted that neither the city engineer nor anyone with WorldClaim has been charged with a crime.
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. – Judge Mark Walker
Prosecution: Prosecutors again hope to show that Finch used bribery and other illegal tactics in an attempt to get a multimillion-dollar contract out of the city.
Defense: Similar to conspiracy three the defense has not yet tackled this through court filings. However, Finch has never been shy about defending his work. Expect his attorneys to argue that his method would have been cheaper and better, as well as the fact that he ultimately withdrew his bid from the city hall rebuild project.
The investigation into corruption began in Lynn Haven but has been wide-ranging. Prosecutors have sent subpoenas or asked for documents from Panama City Beach, Panama City, Bay District Schools, Gulf County, Port St. Joe, and Springfield.
One case involving former prosecutor Greg Wilson and former Panama City employee and Bay County Commissioner Keith Baker is being dealt with in state court.
It’s unclear if other cases will spin out of this one or if others will join the defendants in the federal case. Will anyone at the previously mentioned Company A, Gulf Asphalt Company, face charges? What of the City Engineer that regularly is mentioned by title but has never been indicted? How does Albritton’s recent guilty plea play into these other potential investigations? Albritton also did business in Gulf County and served as the City Attorney for Port St. Joe. What about the alleged bid fixing meeting that took place that several of the defendants attended? Will that ensnare other contractors?
Those watching the case must also wait to find out what the six people who have plead guilty will say if the case goes to trial. We are now three years since Hurricane Michael and this investigation has shown no signs of slowing down.