PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Federal prosecutors have dropped three more charges against the final defendant in the Lynn Haven corruption case.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, now faces one count of conspiracy and one count of bribery in the case. Finch’s trial was set for February 27 but has now been postponed until March 13.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office at one time had Finch charged as the ringleader in a massive criminal conspiracy involving the alleged bribery of public officials and corruption in multi-million dollar projects in the city of Lynn Haven before and after Hurricane Michael.
But after a little more than two years, four separate indictments and a series of legal defeats for federal prosecutors at the hands of Finch’s attorney, Guy Lewis, the construction magnate will only face two charges at a possible trial — conspiracy and bribery.
The news came at a hearing held one day after Margo Anderson, the former Mayor of Lynn Haven, plead guilty to a single felony count of lying to the FBI. The decision by federal prosecutors to accept that plea resulted in charges involving both Finch and Anderson to be dropped from Finch’s case. Those were allegations that Finch and Anderson were part of a criminal conspiracy, that Finch bribed Anderson with expensive trips and an RV and that Finch lied to the FBI about the RV transaction.
Anderson, now a felon, faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison followed by three years of probation and a $250,000 fine. Her sentence is expected to be much lighter than that with the possibility of no prison time at all in the case. Also, when they agreed to the deal federal prosecutors also agreed to give the RV they had seized back to Anderson.
Federal prosecutors told Judge Mark Walker Friday that they are prepared to take Finch to trial on the remaining two counts in his case. Those involve allegations that he conspired with a sitting city commissioner, Antonius Barnes, and that he bribed Barnes. Barnes, like Anderson, pleaded guilty to a single felony count in a separate case and the other charges against him were dropped.
And at a hearing in December Barnes admitted that he asked for $45,000 for a business loan from Finch while he was a commissioner and never paid it back. However, Barnes also testified that he did not consider the money he got from Finch to be a bribe. He also said that it did not affect his votes on Finch projects in Lynn Haven.
Barnes will almost certainly say the same thing in front of a jury at a future trial.
However, so far, federal prosecutors have not had to prove any of their allegations in court. Eight defendants, including Lynn Haven’s former city manager, its city attorney and its leisure services director previously plead guilty in the case.
They, along with Anderson and Barnes, have been waiting to be sentenced while the government attempted to take Finch to trial.
Although that trial is now set for March it is clear that behind the scenes, prosecutors and Finch, are discussing other possibilities.
“We had a terrific meeting and discussion this morning with council for the government,” Lewis said at one point in Friday’s hearing. “Very productive.”