TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WMBB) — A hearing in the Lynn Haven corruption case promised explosive testimony involving current and former city officials as the town’s former mayor and one of its biggest contractors fight the federal government.
And Monday did not disappoint.
Former City Commissioner Antonious Barnes refused to say that James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, bribed him, even though Barnes’ plea deal may now be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the city’s police chief testified that he made audio recordings of Finch and the city’s former mayor.
Finch and former Mayor Margo Anderson are accused of bribery involving city work. The city’s former attorney, Adam Albritton, former city manager, Mike White, and a former city commissioner, Antonious Barnes, have all pleaded guilty in the case.
Barnes first told the FBI that he took more than $40,000 in payments from Finch, a man he had known for more than 30 years, as a business loan. He also repeatedly said he did not sell his vote to Finch. Barnes said his meeting with Finch began with him explaining to him that he was coming to him as a friend and not as a city commissioner.
However, Barnes eventually pleaded guilty to a banking crime and reportedly had a deal to testify against Finch.
On Monday, he chose his old friend over the FBI and the US Department of Justice, and insisted that the money he took from a contractor who did millions in work with the city was a loan.
“Wasn’t your intent to pay back the loan if you could?” asked Guy Lewis, Finch’s attorney.
Barnes said he did intend to pay back the loan but he never did. Barnes also failed to disclose the loan to the state as part of the gift guidelines or recuse himself from votes involving Phoenix projects.
When asked why he went to Finch instead of a bank, Barnes said he had known Finch for 30 years and that a bank would want payments back right away. He knew it would take time for his new insurance business to get off the ground and would pay the money back when that happened.
It apparently never did. Barnes currently works for the Bay District School system as an administrator.
Barnes testified that he was guilty of the crime he plead guilty to, which was not bribery, but also testified that he pleaded guilty because he was coerced by federal prosecutors who threatened him with many years in prison and multiple federal charges.
“That’s why I plead guilty,” Barnes said. “I don’t have the money to fight all that.”
When they plead guilty federal defendants are asked under oath if they are taking the plea because they were coerced. Barnes testimony Monday likely contradicts that and means that he could face a perjury charge along with other charges. After his testimony was concluded, Judge Mark Walker, who was visibly angry, told prosecutors that there would be an emergency hearing in Barnes’ case next week.
Monday’s hearing was part of an ongoing effort by the defense to get Walker to throw out the case. The defense has argued that the investigators in the case were corrupt, that the prosecutors were vindictive and that another contractor who has since died, was not only the real criminal in the case but also set up Finch and Anderson after they came forward about his illegal activity.
Former City Manager Mike White was called to testify about his time in the city. He began by saying that before he got the job he was questioned by Lee Anderson, Margo Anderson’s husband.
“He was asking me questions about how I would cover the mayor’s back,” White said.
He also suggested that Margo Anderson knew about illegal billing by a contractor after Hurricane Michael. He said that he and Anderson both signed off on the invoices.
“It takes two,” he said.
The defense questioned White about his relationship with Lynn Haven Police Chief Rickey Ramie. They pointed to text messages that seemed to show Ramie fixed tickets at White’s request, gave White a gun out of the city’s evidence locker, that White handed Ramie a bag containing a large amount of cash, that he arrested someone at White’s behest, and that the two made derogatory comments about the sexuality of Lynn Haven Commissioner Judy Tinder. The defense also took issue with a suggestive image and a video that were part of White’s text messages.
The image and video were not shown to the public.
However, Ramie testified that he never received those messages and had just seen them for the first time in court on Monday. Ramie said that he had made a derogatory comment about Tinder’s partner but not about Tinder herself. Ramie also denied fixing tickets, taking evidence in cases and giving it to White and arresting anyone without proper cause.
White testified that he gave the cash to Ramie to look after while he went to a meeting and claimed that it came from the sale of his Jeep. Ramie and White both said that the cash was given back to White when the meeting was over. Ramie testified that he didn’t know what was in the bag and was surprised to find cash inside. He added that White told him the cash had come from a real estate deal.
Ramie said that he never took evidence in an active case and that when a case ends the evidence can be disposed of in multiple ways including giving it away. He said he has given guns to judges in similar scenarios.
Ramie’s turn in the spotlight apparently coincides with the existence of tape recordings he made during a meeting between himself, Anderson, Finch, and current city manager Vickie Gainer. The defense suggested that the tapes would show that Finch simply wanted the city to get the best deal on a new city hall and that he did not care if he got the contract.
Finch was pushing the city to change the way the contract would be done so that one company would do the entire project. He also complained that Ramie wanted an expensive office for himself and a $400,000 kitchen in the city’s new Emergency Operations Center.
According to Finch, this new project would go out to bid and anyone would be able to get the contract. But Gainer testified that Finch and Anderson were at odds with her on the project.
“We had to go out to bid and he couldn’t be the person we gave that bid to,” Gainer testified.
The defense argued that Gainer simply misunderstood that Anderson and Finch only wanted the project to go out to bid and save the city money. Gainer said that was not what they really wanted.
“When I’m being contacted every day,” she said. “I don’t think I missed that at all.”
The issue may or may not be cleared up with Ramie’s audio recordings. During his testimony, the defense also said that Finch and Anderson only had the city’s best interest at heart.
“Let’s just push play on the recorder,” Ramie countered.
But the tapes were not played Monday.
Ramie was the focus of another point of Monday’s testimony involving current City Commissioner Judy Tinder. Tinder learned of the texts concerning her sexuality even though they were part of the sealed evidence in the case. She then asked Ramie if he had ever said anything about her during a city commission meeting. Ramie said he had not.
Ramie said on the stand that his comment was not about Tinder but about her partner. However, he also said that Tinder only learned of the text messages because Finch told her about them. That would mean that Finch gave sealed information to a witness in the case.
Tinder testified that was not true.
“I did not hear it from anyone in this camp over here,” she said referring to the defense table.
When prosecutors asked Tinder how she learned of the messages she said multiple people came into her restaurant and told her about them. However, she could not remember which person, specifically, had done so.
Tinder also initially said she had not talked to Finch but when prosecutors pressed her on phone calls she said she recalled that she had talked to him on the phone “a few times.”
“But I couldn’t tell you what it was about,” Tinder said. “Technical questions. Nothing too interesting I think.”
Tinder also lamented the current state of affairs in the city. She said the contract that did not go to Finch for the city buildings is now way over budget and behind schedule. She also took issue with the current leadership in the city. While her issue with Ramie was publicly known Tinder testified that she also, apparently, believed that some work was being done at Gainer’s house by contractors who had been hired by the city.
Tinder said she video recorded this work and delivered it to investigators. It was unclear if anything about the work was actually improper or illegal.
Gainer was not asked about this work when she took the stand.
Multiple contractors also testified Monday. Several of them talked about how Finch tried to help the city as often as he could and that he never took a bribe from anyone. Jerry Wilson, the owner of Jerry Wilson’s Roofing testified that at one point Finch wanted to pay to rebuild some city facilities out of his own pocket. That offer was rejected by the city commission.
“This man’s trying to give y’all $200,000,” Wilson recalled telling the commission. “If you don’t accept that you should resign.”