TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — The pretrial legal maneuvering in the Lynn Haven corruption case continues in Federal court today, as Judge Mark Walker agreed with the defense.
Former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and Phoenix Construction owner James Finch are set to go to trial at the end of the month on conspiracy and bribery charges.
In his ruling, Judge Walker wrote that federal prosecutors will not be allowed to bring up “evidence concerning (Anderson’s) alleged involvement in the Erosion Control and WorldClaim projects” and “evidence concerning her retention and payment of counsel.”
Federal prosecutors previously accused Anderson of accepting a bribe in the form of either free or discounted services from WorldClaim in exchange for ensuring the company got a city contract. She was also accused of having Erosion Control Specialists clean up her property for free after Hurricane Michael and of ignoring how the company was bilking the city for millions during the clean-up.
Anderson maintains that she is innocent of all the charges and she and Finch say they were the whistleblowers who discovered ECS’ wrongdoing and reported it to law enforcement.
Prosecutors had previously charged Anderson in connection with the WorldClaim and ECS schemes, however, when Judge Walker ordered the charges to be severed and held in a separate trial, the prosecutors dropped the charges. The prosecution has declined to say whether or not they would seek those charges again in the future.
The defense successfully argued that “the danger of unfair prejudice” outweighed the prosecution’s reasons for introducing the ECS and Worldclaim evidence. Federal prosecutors had hoped to show the jury that Anderson if would allegedly accept a bribe in one scheme she would do it in another.
To introduce this evidence would create a “trial-within-a-trial” and create a “risk of the jury considering Anderson’s culpability in two uncharged corruption schemes when tasked with assessing her and Finch’s guilt as to other projects,” Walker wrote.
Walker did offer one caveat to his order. If the defense presents evidence that suggests that Anderson and Finch were the whistleblowers, then he will allow the prosecution to present the ECS and WorldClaim evidence in rebuttal.
The prosecution also sought to introduce evidence that Finch was paying for Anderson’s attorney fees as a “corrupt arrangement.” Here, Walker wrote that introducing this evidence creates a “substantial and undue risk that the jury will question both Anderson’s right to counsel and her choice as well as this Court’s verification that she controls the scope of her representation.”
The government is barred from bringing up the issue.
Next, the defense sought to suppress any evidence of alleged bid-rigging. However, Walker agreed with the prosecution and “will refrain from ruling” on this request.
Instead, should the need arise, he will rule on it during the trial after counsel approaches the bench. Finally, the defendants had sought to force the prosecution to name “all alleged co-conspirators and a description of their statements.”
Walker denied this request, saying that this was a discovery issue, not an evidentiary one, and that the case is past that part of the pre-trial phase.
The trial is scheduled to begin on February 27.