Update 8:05 p.m.: The transcripts of Antonius Barnes and Mike White have been attached to this article.
Editor’s Note: We have updated this story with testimony that was taken Tuesday afternoon and more testimony from earlier witnesses.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — The credibility of two key witnesses in the Lynn Haven bribery trial was the centerpiece in Tuesday morning’s testimony.
Mike White, the former city manager, and Antonius Barnes, a former city commissioner, testified about their experiences with James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction.
Both men have pleaded guilty to felonies in connection to the case although White pleaded to four counts involving bribery and wire fraud in connection with the owner of a separate business that was unconnected to Finch. Barnes pleaded guilty to lying on a banking form.
Both men agreed to be truthful on the stand.
The challenge for Guy Lewis, Finch’s attorney, is to convince the jury that White is lying about how Finch allegedly told him he had bribed Barnes while showing that Barnes is being truthful in his testimony. Barnes testified that he asked for and received $45,000 in loans from Finch while he was a sitting city commissioner.
“I’m not coming to you as a city commissioner, I am coming to you as Gen Barnes a friend,” Barnes recalled saying. Barnes stated ‘Gen’ was what his friends called him.
Barnes has maintained on the stand that the money was not a bribe but a loan.
“He wanted my support but I didn’t have to give him my support,” Barnes said Tuesday. Barnes added that he did support Finch’s various projects with the city of Lynn Haven but that was because of the work he delivered.
“I felt like I had to support him because of his past experience doing projects with the city,” Barnes said.
However, prosecutors required Barnes to talk about the unusual financial arrangement he had with Finch. Barnes said he had known Finch since he was a teenager. However, prosecutors pointed out that Barnes had never been invited to a meal with Finch, been invited to his home or been asked to go hunting or fishing with him, or taken a trip on the business owner’s private plane.
They also asked Barnes why he had gone to Finch for money instead of a friend or a bank when he needed money for a new business venture.
“It takes time to build a book of business,” Barnes said. He added that a bank or other people would want their money back right away.
Prosecutors also pointed out that the two men did not seem to have a formal agreement about paying the money back.
“Did Mr. Finch ask you the name of the business?” Prosecutor Andrew Grogan asked at one point.
“He did not,” Barnes replied.
Barnes also said Finch never asked him when he would pay the money back.
Barnes never paid the money back nor did he report the money on his financial disclosure forms that were required each year from the state by city commissioners.
Barnes took the first amount of money from Finch and then came back a mere 20 days later to get more money. Barnes explained that he grossly underestimated how much it would cost to start his business.
He kept on underestimating it until he borrowed a total of $45,000 through multiple transactions, prosecutors showed.
Prosecutors also pointed out that in being allowed to plead guilty to a banking crime instead of bribery Barnes would keep the pension he earned as an educator under Florida law.
During afternoon testimony Lewis pointed the jury to multiple transactions Barnes had made through a business bank account that was for the business. The transactions included advertising and building a website. He also emphasized that Barnes does not believe he took a bribe from Finch.
“I didn’t commit bribery,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he acted honorably while serving as a city commissioner.
“I went to sleep every night with my head on my pillow with a clear conscience,” Barnes said.
Lewis also pointed out that the loans were paid via check which could be traced, rather than cash, that they met at Finch’s offices in the daytime, and that neither man lied to the FBI about the payments.
“Did he stop and say, ‘Hey, better for me to give you $2,500 in cash that way nobody knows?” Lewis asked.
“No,” Barnes replied.
Prosecutors have pointed out that Barnes didn’t disclose the payments in financial paperwork in Lynn Haven. Barnes said that was a mistake.
However, FBI Special Agent Daniel Crecelius stated that these transactions only showed a portion of how Barnes spent the money he got from Finch. He also did not agree that Barnes was trying to start an insurance business.
Crecelius said Barnes started the business in 2012 and the payments did not begin until 2015. He also said that only about $15,000 of the $45,000 that came from Finch was spent on office-related matters. The rest went to fast food restaurants and on unrelated shopping.
And in their follow-up questions to their own witness prosecutors suggested that Barnes was not being truthful on the stand.
When asked, Barnes admitted that a different contractor who did business with Lynn Haven did his driveway for free.
Also, the final check Barnes got from Finch was not deposited into a business account. Instead, according to prosecutors, he cashed it and left the bank with 50 $100 bills.
While Finch and Barnes maintain the money was a loan and not a bribe prosecutors do have one witness who said he heard Finch make a damning statement about the transactions.
Former City Manager Mike White told the FBI that he and Finch were discussing an upcoming vote and that Finch said Barnes would dance if he told him to and that if there was any issue it was just that Barnes wanted more money.
However, last week White provided handwritten notes that he said he created before he was first interviewed by the government. These notes, which were not provided to the defense until the eve of trial, allegedly show all of what White was going to tell the government.
The notes, and White’s testimony on the stand on Tuesday, add a racial element to the case.
White now says that Finch told him, “He’s my (expletive) and he’ll dance if I tell him to dance. The (expletive) just wants to see if I’ll throw more money to him.”
Tuesday was the first time White or government documents had included racist language. When the jury was out of the room, Judge Mark Walker said the new language and the notes seemed to have arisen from a “sudden epiphany” by White.
“Like Saul on the road to Damascus,” Walker said.
Lewis suggested to the jury that this was coming into play because Lewis himself had pointed out White’s use of racist language in text messages in a hearing last December.
“Your memory is often selective,” Lewis said during a contentious cross-examination.
“I don’t like my dirty laundry being aired,” White conceded.
However, White repeatedly looked at the jury and told them that he was telling the truth. His behavior on the stand was another sticking point for Lewis who pointed out that White had been told by government prosecutors to speak directly to the jury while testifying.
“I want them to know I am telling the truth,” White said at one point.
White also said he was telling the truth when he testified about two visits from Satan. Lewis brought up the encounters by pointing to items White had written on a blog. White testified that he has become a much more religious person since he was arrested.
Lewis asked White if he wrote that the devil “hovered over you, suffocated you and you couldn’t breathe?”
“Amen to that,” White responded.
Later he described the encounter as being as real as what was going on in the courtroom.
“I saw the devil,” White said.
At one point Lewis noted that people like White, who suffers from bipolar disorder, can cause people to “see and hear things” that aren’t there.
Lewis also pointed out that White has only been called to testify in one case. However, White responded that this case was the only one to actually go to a trial.
“Everybody else has plead,” White said.
The prosecution rested its case Tuesday. The trial will resume with defense witnesses Wednesday morning.
You can read the transcripts of Antonius Barnes and Mike White below: