Editor’s Note: We have updated this story.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — After a long legal battle in federal court, the former mayor of Lynn Haven was sentenced for one felony count of lying to the FBI Monday.
Margo Anderson, 68, will serve one month in prison followed by one year of probation. Judge Mark Walker also ordered her to serve 100 hours of community service but assessed no fines against her.
“It is well with my soul,” Anderson said shortly after the sentencing, making the statement on the record but declining to go on camera.
Anderson was one of nine people indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in a corruption probe after Hurricane Michael in 2018. Seven of the defendants plead guilty within the first year of the case.
However, Anderson, who faced 64 counts of bribery and corruption, and James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, fought the charges in a court battle that lasted more than two years.
In those two years, their legal team forced prosecutors to get two new indictments and whittled down the case until only five charges were left. Then, instead of taking both Anderson and Finch to trial federal prosecutors accepted a plea agreement from the former mayor and dropped Finch’s case to only two charges.
During her sentencing, Anderson said she “deeply regretted” the pain and stress this caused her family, friends, and “the community that I loved.”
“All because of me,” she said.
Her statement to the judge also highlighted the work she did as Mayor in the weeks and months after Hurricane Michael. She noted that she organized and unloaded trucks of supplies raised money for residents, created city-wide Halloween and Thanksgiving events, worked to keep the national media spotlight on the community, campaigned for Hurricane Michael to be classified as a Category 5 storm, and worked with politicians and even the president to try and help the city.
“I truly worked as hard as I could for as long as I could to help the people of Lynn Haven,” she said.
Prosecutor Andrew Grogan described Anderson as a good person who made a bad decision but urged Judge Walker to closely examine why she lied.
The lie was about when she first spoke to David White, the owner of ECS. ECS falsely billed Lynn Haven for millions and cleaned yards for several city officials for free. Anderson maintained that ECS only cleaned out a city-owned easement near her home and not her property. She has also maintained that she knew nothing of the illegal billing.
Prosecutors said she lied about the clean-up of her property and about the purchase of an RV from Finch. The RV charge, which prosecutors once argued was a bribe, was dropped when Anderson plead guilty. However, prosecutors asked Walker to continue to consider it before he imposed his sentence.
Grogan, pointing to documents filed on behalf of Anderson before her sentencing and said there are “still inconsistencies with what Mrs. Anderson said happened.”
He added that Anderson steered a lot of city business to Finch.
“A public official should be held to a higher standard,” Grogan said.
Anderson’s attorney, Tony Bajoczky, argued that the behavior prosecutors objected to actually happened because of her husband. For instance, he entered a deal with Finch for the RV and then submitted paperwork about it, Bajoczky said. Also, he was at the home when the property was cleaned up and not Anderson.
Bajoczky also answered, for the first time, why prosecutors accepted a deal with Anderson that no longer charged her with bribery for accepting an RV from Finch.
During the hearing, Bajoczky said Anderson’s husband received a lump sum payment from the VA and that prosecutors realized that money could have been used to purchase the RV. However, prosecutors noted that the supposed purchase price of the RV changed depending on which legal document was presented to investigators.
“He (Anderson’s husband) says he paid for the motorhome,” Bajoczky said. “She has no reason to believe otherwise.”
But for Walker, the focus remained on the crime of lying to the FBI and what other politicians would learn from his sentence. Walker and the attorneys discussed whether prison time was necessary as a deterrent.
“We have a lawless society where the people in the highest levels of government to the lowest levels of government seem to lie with impunity,” Walker said.
Bajoczky urged Walker to consider the pain that had already been inflicted on Anderson during the court proceedings.
Ultimately, Walker said he did not believe Anderson lied to the FBI because she was covering up a massive crime where thousands of dollars worth of work was done at her home and the city was billed for it. Instead, he said he believed she lied, “because the optics were bad.”
However, politicians cannot lie to investigators regardless of their motivations, Walker said. He added that attacks on the agency by others in political life were “gross.”
“You have nothing to fear from the FBI if you tell the truth full stop,” Walker said.
In May, Mike White, Lynn Haven’s former City Manager, and David White, a business owner who bribed Mike White, were both sentenced to 42 months in prison.
Three others were sentenced to probation.
Finch went to trial in March. It ended with a hung jury. His retrial is scheduled for October.
Still to be sentenced in connection to the case are Adam Albritton, the former attorney for the city, and former city commissioner Antonius Barnes. Albritton’s sentencing is postponed until after Finch’s retrial.
Barnes is set to be sentenced Tuesday, June 6.
Anderson must report to prison on July 10.