LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — The final defendant in the Lynn Haven corruption case is once again asking a federal court judge to dismiss the charges against him.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, once faced a host of charges in connection to his business dealings and relationships in the city. However, after a series of successful motions by his defense attorney, Guy Lewis, and a plea agreement with another defendant by the prosecution, Finch currently only faces two charges.
Conspiracy and bribery over $45,000 in payments Finch made to then city commissioner Antonius Barnes. Barnes pleaded guilty to a separate charge in the case and testified at trial that the money given to him by Finch was a business loan and not a bribe.
In that trial, held earlier this month, the jury split on Finch’s guilt and a mistrial was declared.
Also, Judge Mark Walker said the evidence the prosecution presented at trial “barely” survived a motion to dismiss.
“A review of the record in this case firmly indicates that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction,” Lewis wrote. “In fact, the government’s proof depended entirely on an alleged single statement of admitted fraudster (former Lynn Haven City Manager) Michael White coupled with a government-inserted statement in the Antonius Barnes plea agreement factual statement. Both pieces of evidence, whether taken individually or collectively, are clearly insufficient to sustain a conviction of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lewis adds that not only does the prosecution lack evidence of Finch’s guilt they also lack evidence of the “corrupt intent.” He noted that prosecutors argued that even though Barnes testified the money was not a bribe, he did admit that Finch bribed him when he signed his statement of facts during his guilty plea. But that’s not enough proof, Lewis wrote, writing that language in the statement of facts was dubious. He cited changes in both former city attorney Adam Albritton’s plea and David Horton’s original plea hearing as evidence that the prosecution was inserting “factually dubious and unnecessary statements, many of which have turned out to be simply false.”
The language in the plea agreement runs counter to what Mr. Barnes has testified to in open court.
He also wrote that “corrupt intent” is lacking because Barnes and Finch did not try to hide the payments.
“In this case, there is no evidence that Defendant Finch concealed the principal
loan disbursements to Mr. Barnes,” Lewis wrote. “The nature of the loan was legitimate. The timing was legitimate. There were no secret recordings. All payments were made via check. The memo line on five out of the seven checks indicated that it was part of their loan agreement. Six of the seven checks were deposited into Mr. Barnes’ business bank accounts.”
“In short, from Mr. Finch’s perspective, the business loan was open and notorious in every way,” Lewis added.
Prosecutors have noted that Barnes declined to report the money in state income forms required by public officials, that he continued to vote on Finch projects without disclosing the loan to city staff, and that he simply cashed the final $5,000 check instead of depositing it into a business account.
Lewis also argues that the evidence failed to show that Lynn Haven received federal benefits, which is the linchpin that makes this a federal case instead of a state-level case. He points out that all of the prosecution’s witnesses as to the federal money were state-level officials and that they did not testify as to the structure, operation, or purpose of the federal programs. He added that prosecutors did not have any witnesses from the federal programs themselves.
Finally, he argued that the city process of vetting all contracts proved that there was no corrupt intent.
That process usually meant that commissioners accepted projects based on staff recommendations and usually approved the lowest bidder. Also, Finch’s projects were unanimously approved and Barnes voted on those projects long before he allegedly received any money from Finch, Lewis wrote.
Prosecutors have not yet responded to the motion. A retrial in the case is set for July 17.