TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — A local teacher and former Lynn Haven city commissioner once again affirmed that he was guilty of a felony count of fraud and told a federal judge he did not want to fight the charge at trial.
Antonius Barnes was once accused of being bribed by James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction. However, prosecutors agreed to drop those charges in exchange for Barnes’ testimony at an upcoming trial for Finch and former Mayor Margo Anderson. Barnes then plead guilty to a fraud charge in a separate case involving paperwork he filed with at a bank.
Finch and Anderson are facing conspiracy and bribery charges in connection to Lynn Haven city business. Finch is also accused of lying to the FBI during the investigation.
Judge Mark Walker ordered Barnes to return to court Thursday after his testimony in last week’s hearing in the Finch and Anderson case. During that hearing, Barnes testified that he felt coerced by prosecutors into taking a plea because he was facing many years in prison in the bribery case.
Walker began the hearing with a lengthy explanation of Barnes’ rights as a defendant and his requirement as a judge to ensure that Barnes is taking the plea of his own free will.
“It’s not that I was upset,” Walker said about his demeanor on the stand during Barnes’ testimony last week. “I don’t have any preference whether people plea or don’t plea.”
He added that he had an obligation to ensure that Barnes’ plea was free and voluntary and that there was a factual basis to accept the plea. In federal court, defendants are required to admit that they are guilty of the crimes to which they plead.
“If you plea only because someone coerced you into pleading I wouldn’t have accepted your plea,” Walker said. “This is about making sure you want to stand by your plea.”
Walker added that he absolutely would allow Barnes to withdraw his plea and take his case to trial if he wished to do so. Later, he also noted that while it would be wrong to allow Barnes to take a plea when he felt threatened it would also be “equally wrong” to force him to go to trial when he wished to take a plea.
Barnes said he did not want to withdraw his plea but added that the situation had been hard on him and his family. He noted this is the first time he had ever been accused of breaking the law.
“I’ve been a stellar citizen … a highly effective educator,” he said. “Being in this process is very overwhelming to me.”
He added that the case had a negative impact on his family and the ability to get better job opportunities.
Barnes is currently a teacher in Bay District Schools and was once an administrator for the school system and a city commissioner. Barnes admitted that while he was a commissioner he asked for and received a loan from Finch for more than $40,000 to start an insurance business. He never paid back the money.
Barnes previously testified that he made it clear to Finch he was not selling his vote and has been adamant that he was not bribed.
However, Barnes’ attorney, Gary Printy, made it clear to Judge Walker that his client had a lot to lose if he did not take a plea agreement with the government. If he took the bribery case to trial and lost, or if he plead guilty to a bribery count, under Florida law Barnes would lose his pension after nearly 30 years in the school system.
“Do I want to be a convicted felon?” Barnes said rhetorically at one point. “Absolutely not.”
Printy said he and prosecutor Stephen Kuntz worked together to find a charge that would allow Barnes to plead guilty but would also allow him to keep his pension.
Walker is expected to rule sometime in January on several defense motions that will have an impact on the Finch and Anderson case. The defense is asking that he throw out the case entirely.
If he does not, a trial is set for the end of February.