LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — The two remaining defendants in the Lynn Haven corruption case are asking a judge to throw out most of the charges and several key witnesses before a February trial.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, and Margo Anderson, the former mayor of Lynn Haven, are accused of conspiracy and bribery in connection to city projects.
However, their defense team has repeatedly claimed that it was federal prosecutors, the FBI, and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office who acted corruptly in pursuit of a conviction. Finch’s attorney., Guy Lewis, laid out these allegations again in a recent filing.
The motion was requested by Judge Mark Walker following a two-day hearing where the defense asked for Walker to dismiss the case entirely. In response, Walker requested a list of possible options to deal with the defense allegations if he ultimately chose not to throw out the case.
The defense previously convinced Walker to throw out key charges in the case and forced prosecutors to seek two superseding indictments. After starting with more than 80 charges against Finch and Anderson prosecutors are going forward with just five; conspiracy, two counts of bribery against Finch, one count of bribery against Anderson, and one count against Finch of lying to the FBI.
The defense has long maintained that an FBI agent, a prosecutor, and an investigator at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office acted corruptly in the investigation. The accusations against them include multiple flawed indictments, using an informant to illegally spy on the defendants when they were speaking with their attorneys, that the Bay County Sheriff’s investigator illegally worked with another suspect in the case, and alleged lies to the grand jury.
They also accused prosecutors of trying to arrest Finch at home in front of the media because of the publicity they hoped such an arrest would generate. The US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida also allegedly spent nearly $500,000 on a public relations firm to handle news conferences and other media obligations.
“In short, the government’s recklessness, carelessness, and illegal media campaign is evidence that the sovereign disregarded its legal and ethical obligations,” Lewis wrote. “Winning was the goal, all at the expense of justice.”
But the latest filing includes new accusations against Lynn Haven Police Chief Ricky Ramie, former Lynn Haven City Manager Michael White, and current Lynn Haven City Manager Vickie Gainer.
The defense made much of the text messages between White and Ramie at the hearing. Those texts were made when White still worked for the city and included derogatory comments about the partner of a city commissioner, orders from White to Ramie to fix tickets, arrest someone, and alleged racist statements. The texts have not been made public by the court. Ramie testified that he made the derogatory comment but denied that he made racist statements or arrested anyone improperly. The ticket was connected to clean up after Hurricane Michael and was handled by a subordinate, Ramie said.
“Chief Ramie’s close relationship with former Lynn Haven City Manager Michael White was also buried within 31,000 pages of Michael White’s phone records demonstrating shocking misconduct and bias,” Lewis wrote. “Until very recently, virtually no one (witness, officer, agent, or anyone) has been questioned about the rampant case-related misconduct and general corruption in BCSO or LHPD. To the extent limited inquiry is being made, the disparity and contradiction is overwhelming, and clearly designed to cover up, rather than reveal bad conduct.”
While the text messages have resulted in a stir in Lynn Haven politics and a call from one commissioner for Ramie to be fired, they may not ever be seen by a jury. That’s according Judge Walker who engaged in a lengthy discussion on the issue with Lewis during the hearing.
“I’m just saying there is a line, and bringing up any unrelated, nasty thing that you can conceive is — there’s a point at which it’s no longer designed to show something … something that may be germane, and it simply becomes, ‘we want to make you look bad,'” Walker said.
Allegations again Ramie of racism or other bad acts can only be used in a limited way to impeach a witness, Walker said. In most instances, that would mean catching Ramie in a lie. It would probably not be allowed in a case where race is not an issue.
“I got to be honest with you, Counsel, there’s no reason for you to bring that up other than to inflame minorities on the jury,” Walker said.
The accusation that Gainer is somehow a bad actor in the case rests on the idea that she made notes about her interactions with Finch and Anderson and that she turned over those notes to prosecutors who then failed to make them available to the defense as required under the law.
If the case is not thrown out entirely, Lewis asked Walker to prevent Ramie and Gainer from testifying at trial. If Walker agrees jurors will never hear what Gainer has to say about repeated interactions with Anderson and Finch or hear tape recordings Ramie secretly made of the defendants.
Lewis also requested that four of the five charges be thrown out, that the FBI agent and Michael White be prevented from testifying. They are also asking that a statement from former City Commissioner Antonius Barnes be thrown out; that material from an FBI raid be released six weeks before trial; and that the jury should get special instructions from Judge Walker.
“Multiple instructions from the Court explaining in part the Court’s findings of recklessness, unprofessionalism, haphazardness, and sanctions,” Lewis wrote. “For example, the jury should be made aware that we are on the Third Superseding Indictment, in part due to the government’s reckless investigation and false and misleading information that was presented to secure the Indictment, Superseding Indictment, and Second Superseding Indictment.”
Prosecutors are expected to respond to this motion soon. Judge Walker is expected to rule on the issues in January. A trial in the case is scheduled for late February.