TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — A jury in a federal bribery trial asked two questions of Judge Mark Walker during their deliberations Thursday.
They wanted to know why Antonius Barnes, the man who was accused of taking bribes from business owner James Finch, did not testify and they wanted to know if he had an immunity deal.
Federal prosecutors accused Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, of bribing Barnes, a former Lynn Haven city commissioner, with $45,000 in checks over several years. Barnes and Finch maintained that the money was a business loan.
Barnes eventually took a plea deal in the case and agreed to cooperate with the government. But at the first trial, he refused to testify that the money was a bribe saying only that it was a business loan from an old friend. That trial ended in a hung jury.
During a second trial this week, prosecutors declined to call Barnes. The defense did not call him either and in closing arguments, Finch’s defense attorney, Jennifer Lukemeyer, asked the jury to consider that the man who should have been a key witness in the case never took the stand.
When the jury returned to Walker with that specific question about Barnes, he told them he could not explain the issue to them. Walker said that the jury could only consider the evidence presented to them at the trial and that they could not use any other evidence or an explanation by the judge to make their decision.
A few minutes later they came back with a not guilty verdict.
After the verdict, Walker spoke with the jurors in private about their decision and he relayed back to the attorneys that the fact that Barnes did not testify was the key factor in their decision.
Outside the courtroom, Finch celebrated with his supporters and promised retribution against some of the people who he believed worked against him.
“I’ve got a few lawsuits to file,” Finch said. “I’ve got to prove that I was right and who was wrong. And there was some of them that have been wrong over here that have been totally wrong. That will come out starting tomorrow.”
Finch did not name who would face the lawsuits, but he did say that he is concerned with the current management at the city of Lynn Haven.
Finch added that those close to him knew he was innocent.
“The people that knew me, my friends and stuff like that, they didn’t have any problem,” he said. “They knew that if there was anything that I wasn’t going to do it is to do something wrong to the city of Lynn Haven and the people that live there.”
Eight other people, including Lynn Haven’s former mayor, former city manager, and former city attorney accepted plea deals from federal prosecutors in the case. Finch refused. He said he was even offered a deal that would have come with no prison time.
“I didn’t take one. I was offered several and I told them to stick it in their (expletive),” Finch said.
When asked to expound on why he made that decision Finch added, “Because I wanted it to go in their (expletive). Because I wasn’t taking no plea deal for something I didn’t do.”
Finch also criticized the federal prosecutors in the case.
“The government people think they’re the dog and all the other people are the hydrant,” Finch said. “If you work for the government your customer is the people. Be nice to your customer.”
Finch’s acquittal likely brings the federal investigation into corruption in Lynn Haven to a close. Every other defendant in the case was sentenced except for former City Attorney Adam Albritton. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — A jury has found a local business owner not guilty of bribery.
Federal prosecutors accused James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, of bribing Antonius Barnes, a former Lynn Haven city commissioner. Barnes and Finch maintain that the $45,000 in checks was a business loan.
However, Barnes never paid the money back and continued to vote on Finch’s projects before the city commission.
During Thursday’s trial Finch’s defense team called two witnesses who testified about Phoenix Construction. Both witnesses testified that Phoenix had multimillion-dollar contracts with state, federal and local government agencies outside of Lynn Haven and that those contracts were most of Phoenix’s business.
Phoenix Vice President Ted Schope testified that Lynn Haven only represented 3 or 4 percent of the business in some years. Schope also testified that Finch supported the city by loaning them the money they needed to do a large construction project and agreeing to be paid back at 2.5 percent interest over 30 years.
Finally, Schope testified that in 20 years of bringing issues before the Lynn Haven City Commission Finch won on every vote unanimously.
The defense hopes this will show the jury that Finch never needed to bribe Barnes.
During a cross-examination prosecutors suggested that Finch won every vote because other contractors in the area simply avoided Lynn Haven.
“Is it fair to say that these contractors treat the City of Lynn Haven as Mr. Finch’s turf?” Prosecutor Anderson Grogan said.
Schope disagreed. He said Finch’s other contractors stayed away because Finch always agreed to do the work for the city at a much lower rate than anyone else would match.
Schope also testified about Finch’s connections to the city, noting that Phoenix Construction sits just a few doors down from the home where Finch was born.
This is the second trial in this case. The first trial ended with a hung jury. During Wednesday’s proceedings, a ruling from Judge Mark Walker dramatically changed the defense case shortly before it began.
During the first trial, the defense called several witnesses who testified about Finch’s hardscrabble upbringing and his honesty and integrity both in business and in his personal life.
But this time, prosecutors informed Walker and the defense that if those witnesses were called prosecutors would then ask about Finch’s interactions with former Mayor Margo Anderson. Prosecutors have long maintained that Finch also bribed Anderson by taking her on expensive vacations and giving her an RV.
Finch and Anderson denied this saying that they were old friends who vacationed together in the years before Anderson was mayor and that the Andersons paid for the RV.
The entire issue seemed to become irrelevant when prosecutors agreed to a plea deal with Anderson allowing her to plea to a single count of lying to the FBI. Anderson even got the RV back after it was confiscated by law enforcement.
Under Walker’s ruling, that RV issue would now be fair game.
“The very issue in this case is he trying to bribe a public official,” Walker said.
Walker still ruled out discussion of vacations but another issue with the RV, that a bill of sale was created months after the transaction took place and only after the corruption investigation began might also be relevant, prosecutors said.
Ultimately, the jury never heard anything about the RV or from the witnesses who planned to talk about Finch’s integrity. They also never heard from Barnes who was not called by either side to testify.
And Finch declined to take the stand.
“The burden is on them,” he said when asked by Walker about his decision.
This is a developing story and we will have more information as it becomes available.