TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) – The most important witness in the trial of a Bay County businessman on a bribery charge came to the courtroom Wednesday in shackles.
He was wearing the brown shirt and tan slacks that were likely issued to him by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The shackles restricted his movement so much that when he raised his hand to swear to tell the truth he could not get his fingers above his belly.
This was Mike White, the former city manager of Lynn Haven, who once again testified that a prominent Lynn Haven resident had told him about an ongoing bribery scheme involving a city commissioner.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, and Antonius Barnes, the former commissioner, have denied the allegations. The two men say the money was a loan to help Barnes start an insurance business. Although the case began with more than a dozen charges against Finch plea deals and successful defense arguments have whittled it down to just one charge: bribery.
Federal prosecutors argue that Finch paid Barnes multiple times over several years starting in 2015 and that each payment was connected to a Barnes vote on city business. Barnes pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. White pleaded guilty to wire fraud and other charges as part of the same sprawling investigation. Lynn Haven’s former mayor, director of leisure services, and city attorney have all taken plea agreements with federal prosecutors as well.
The lone holdout, in a case that ultimately resulted in 8 other guilty pleas, is Finch.
According to White, in 2017 he and Finch were at a local park discussing a problem with trees when White asked Finch about an upcoming vote on a city project. White said he wasn’t sure Finch had the votes. Even though Finch had the votes on every other project in the city for 20 years he volunteered to White that at least one commissioner — Barnes — would be a yes.
“That black (expletive) will call me. He probably wants more money,” White recalled Finch saying. “That (expletive) will dance when I tell him to dance.”
This is the second time federal prosecutors have tried to convict Finch. The first trial ended with a hung jury. At issue in both trials is White’s credibility.
On Wednesday, Finch’s defense team emphasized that White accepted responsibility for his crimes at sentencing earlier this year and then wrote a blog post two weeks later to explain that he was not guilty of everything. They also made sure the jury knew that White had been convicted of domestic violence, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had an alcohol problem.
“Is that why you put a gun to your wife’s head because you were bipolar?” Finch’s attorney, James Voyles asked White at one point.
Voyles and co-counsel Jennifer Lukemeyer also emphasized that White desperately needed to give federal prosecutors something so that he could be counted as a cooperating defendant and get a reduction in his sentence. White was facing a minimum of 162 months in prison. He was ultimately sentenced to 42 months.
Even one of the prosecution’s own witnesses called White a liar. Local engineer Chris Forehand was called to testify about his work for both Lynn Haven and Phoenix Construction.
However, White testified earlier Wednesday that Forehand was an old friend who, even though they worked together, had once given him $3,500 as a Christmas gift. When Forehand testified he said the money had not been a gift but rather a payment to White for making a corporate handbook for Forehand’s business.
He also disagreed with White about where the payment took place, White said it happened in a truck, Forehand said they were at a restaurant. Forehand also noted that White had asked to be paid in cash.
“If there was testimony it was a Christmas gift that’s a lie?” Lukemeyer asked.
“Yes,” Forehand replied.
“If there was testimony it happened in a truck that was a lie?” Lukemeyer asked.
“Yes,” Forehand replied.
The issue of White’s credibility came up again when Judge Mark Walker discussed a motion by the defense to throw out the case.
Walker, while speaking to the attorneys outside the presence of the jury suggested that it was possible that the jury may not believe anything White said on the stand, “other than perhaps his name.”
The defense team had hoped that Walker would stop the trial before the case went to the jury both because of White’s lack of credibility and because the prosecutors failed to show why Finch needed to bribe Barnes.
During a lengthy cross-examination, Lukemeyer forced FBI Agent Dan Crecelius to note that every single vote Barnes took in favor of a Finch project was unanimous. Each time pointing out that if Barnes had not shown up for the meeting the projects still would have been approved.
Prosecutors have argued that Finch liked to have a commissioner in his pocket in case there was a close vote. The defense noted that there never was a close vote in Lynn Haven.
Walker seemed to agree with this assessment.
“To accept this version of events, Mr. Finch, who has been incredibly successful, would have to be an idiot,” Walker said.
That was strikingly similar to the answer Finch gave an FBI agent several years ago when he was first asked about the alleged bribe. FBI agent Stephen Ward recalled the conversation on the stand Wednesday.
“I’m smarter than that,” Finch allegedly said.
However, Finch did not deny giving Barnes money as part of a loan, and the agents located those payments in both men’s bank records.
The decision to pay Barnes with checks, instead of cash, is one of the key elements of the case. After all, White had no way to know about the money unless either Finch or Barnes had told him about it. And, other tips given to investigators by White panned out, Crecelius said, strengthening the case that he was telling the truth about Finch.
Also, while he rhetorically poked holes in the prosecution’s case Walker refused to throw it out. A jury will have to determine what is true.
“Whether I find Mr. White credible or not is really beside the point,” Walker said. “I don’t get to decide that.”
Federal prosecutors rested their case against Finch Wednesday afternoon. The defense will make its case to the jury on Thursday.