PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — A former Lynn Haven department director wants to plead guilty to federal charges while also mostly maintaining his innocence.
David Horton, the former community services director for Lynn Haven, wants to plead guilty in a corruption case where every other co-defendant has already admitted to their crimes.
However, Horton said Thursday that he can’t admit that he had knowledge of the criminal conspiracy when he signed off on paperwork that allowed Erosion Control Specialists to bilk the city out of hundreds of thousands of dollars during the aftermath and clean up of Hurricane Michael.
Instead, he wanted to admit that he signed some forms without verifying that they were true.
Former City Manager Mike White, 46, Erosion Control Specialist Owner David White, 39, and ECS Employee Shannon Rodriguez, 37, and Joshua Daniel Anderson, owner of GreenLeaf Lawn Care of Bay County, have all pleaded guilty to charges in the case.
Horton is charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering.
Federal prosecutors said Horton knew he was signing documents that were false. Horton said he didn’t know the documents were false. And the judge said that the only way to settle the matter is to go to trial.
“When you approved papers that cause the city to pay ECS did you know that the papers you were signing off on were false?” asked Judge Robert Hinkle during a Thursday afternoon change of plea hearing.
“No sir,” Horton replied.
“Mr. Kunz that sounds to me like a statement of innocence. If he didn’t know this stuff is false he’s not guilty is he?” Hinkle asked U.S. Attorney Stephen Kunz.
Kunz replied that it could be an issue of semantics.
“The evidence is clear, the facts indicate that the defendant, the invoices would not be paid unless the department head, Mr. Horton, certified that the information thereon was correct and he had agreed to certify the number of employees that were there,” Kunz said. “Those timesheets were not accurate, he knows they were not true, not accurate, when he signed off on them, some of them indicated dozens and dozens and dozens of employees were there and he knew they weren’t there judge from our evidence.”
Horton and his attorney, Maria Dykes, said Horton would like to change his plea to guilty and, presumably cooperate with federal prosecutors in their corruption investigation, but that he could not swear under oath that he knew something he didn’t know.
Although Florida courts allow defendants to take “no contest” pleas that where they can take the punishment and agree to a sentence with prosecutors without admitting guilt, federal courts do not usually allow this.
In rare circumstances, federal judges are allowed to take guilty pleas even though the defendant maintains their innocence, Hinkle said. However, it would not be “a good idea” in this case because if Horton was unaware of the criminal conspiracy then he is not guilty of wire fraud and instead only possibly guilty of a much lesser crime like criminal negligence.
“The difference in the sentence for the facts the government says are true and the facts Mr. Horton says are true is enormous,” Hinkle said. “It’s a very substantial issue. If he’s not guilty we ought to have a trial and find out if he’s guilty or not.”
Horton’s trial is now set for August.