Update 2:55 p.m.: The transcripts of the defense’s motion for judgment of acquittal and the Rule 29 ruling have been attached to this article.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — A prominent local businessman almost convinced a federal judge to throw out his bribery case Wednesday.

However, Judge Mark Walker stopped short of ending the trial on the basis of a “Rule 29” motion.

Instead, on Thursday, the jury is deliberating whether or not James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, bribed Antonius Barnes, a former Lynn Haven city commissioner. Finch paid Barnes $45,000 in a series of checks. However, Barnes testified that the money he never paid back was a loan for his insurance business.

Guy Lewis, writing on behalf of Finch, urged Walker to throw out the case. Lewis wrote that the government had failed to prove that there was a conspiracy between the two men. Lewis pointed to Barnes’s testimony writing that Barnes said he did not sell his vote, Finch did not buy his vote, that Finch never did or said anything to make Barnes think Finch intended to bribe him, and that he never possessed a corrupt state of mind.

Prosecutors argued that Barnes’s testimony at trial was far different from his plea agreement, which he signed and testified was truthful. They said Barnes agreed with the government that Finch bribed him and that he would say so on the stand.

As part of his motion, Lewis also argued that there was insufficient evidence at trial of a federal benefit which is needed for federal prosecutors to have jurisdiction over the case. Lewis also argued that there was insufficient evidence of corrupt intent.

Lewis wrote, “there is no evidence that Defendant Finch concealed the principal loan disbursements to Mr. Barnes. 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’s business bank accounts.”

He added that the checks were written in a time frame when Barnes was trying to re-launch his insurance business. However, an FBI agent involved in the case said the checks came three years after he started the business and testified that most of the money was not used for legitimate business purposes. The last check, for $5,000, was not deposited into a business bank account, prosecutors said. Instead, Barnes cashed it directly.

“Not a single government witness testified that the checks were intended for any other purpose than for use to support Mr. Barnes’ insurance business,” Lewis wrote.

When the jury was out Walker ruled on the motion from the bench.

Walker said, “I have to say, unlike most cases where I think it’s a completely frivolous argument, I wrestled with it in this case. And I want to make plain why I wrestled with it.”

“It doesn’t matter what I know from some other record that’s been filed. It doesn’t matter what I suspect or what I may have concerns about. All that matters is what evidence was presented during the course of this trial,” he added. “And I understand that I don’t get to weigh the evidence, and I’m not going to weigh the evidence. But the fact that a reasonable juror would have to find beyond a reasonable doubt as to each element does mean something.”

Walker noted that Lynn Haven projects were vetted and ranked by city staff before the commission voted on them. Also, the evidence showed that the commission almost always voted unanimously on projects following the recommendation of city employees.

“You then add the layer to that that it’s unrebutted that Mr. Barnes had voted on these projects for years and years and years. It’s unrebutted that Mr. Finch had gotten bid after bid because he was the low bid. It’s unrebutted that one of the reasons why he could have the low bid is he was local and had everything in place, so it by definition was going to be cheaper for him to do some of these things,” Walker said. “It was unrebutted that he worked with and offered to work with the City, not just because he was a businessman, but because he had a vested interest in doing things for the City.”

Walker added that there was evidence that suggested that even though he won nearly every bid, “he’s got — still wants to make sure — he wants to not just have a stacked deck, he wants to make sure that somehow he’s going to give somebody money to ensure he’s going to get their vote, even though the unrebutted evidence suggests that it doesn’t seem to be necessary.”

Walker also talked about the testimony of Joel Schubert, a former Lynn Haven City Manager. Schubert testified about buying a house from Finch.

“And Mr. Schubert, the government’s witness, said that they were trying to get him to pay him more than $100,000 over market value. Now, what appears to be unrebutted to me on this record is that Mr. Finch, while he may not have a JD from Harvard, he’s a pretty bright guy. And he’s got to be both the dumbest businessman and the dumbest criminal in the history of the world if he thought he was going to influence the city manager by offering to sell him a house for more than $100,000 than what it was worth,” Walker said. “Just for the life of me, I don’t understand how that shows or supports corrupt intent.”

Walker did not mention other testimony from Schubert about meeting with Finch and then Mayor Margo Anderson after he resigned from the city. At that meeting, the pair offered him a raise if he would stay, Schubert said. Prosecutors pointed out that the pair did this together, even though Finch did not work for the city and Anderson was only one vote on the commission.

“However, we do have the testimony of Mr. White. We do have the idea that there was not an insignificant amount of money,” Walker said. “So you juxtapose — and this is where the rub comes in — what seems to be the worst business decision in the history of the world, spending $45,000 when there is nothing to suggest there would ever be a problem with you getting the bids when you had the low bid.”

However, testimony from former City Manager Mike White, “coupled with some other circumstances, it barely survives a Rule 29 motion,” Walker added. “I go through this to make plain that I was listening to the evidence. But I don’t get to weigh the evidence. And it’s a close call, but there is enough from which a jury could find corrupt intent.”

Walker added that he wanted to rule on the motion Wednesday in the midst of the trial.

“The reason why I’m doing this now is I rule on motions. I don’t want to see what the jury does and try to chicken out,” Walker said. “I’ve had to make a tough call. And this weighed on me because I got to say, it’s certainly not the typical case where it’s abundantly clear that any reasonable juror could find beyond a reasonable doubt.”

After discussing the case for about an hour Wednesday jurors returned to court Thursday to continue their deliberations.

You can read the entire transcript below: