Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Feds: Florida prosecutor accepted tractor bribe before resigning. (Florida Times-Union)

I watched the plea bargain process as a young newspaper editor at age 24-26 in East Tennessee.  The reform DA, Jim Ramsey, sometimes negotiated plea bargains in my presence, with consent of defense lawyers.  Resolving most criminal cases, the plea bargain process is little understood and not taught in law school.  

Too often, in Florida, the plea bargain process seems just a bit shady to me as in the Third Judicial Circuit, where disgraced former elected State's Attorney Jeff Seigmeister, has drawn a federal forfeiture lawsuit and is under federal criminal investigation, with one bribe-payer already leading guilty.

From Florida Times-Union:

Feds: Florida prosecutor accepted tractor bribe before resigning

Andrew Pantazi
Florida Times-Union
Ex-State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister in 2015.

The ongoing federal corruption investigation of Jeff Siegmeister, a former North Florida state attorney, led to the first charges last week, with prosecutors detailing how Siegmeister allegedly accepted a bribe in exchange for dropping a criminal case in Madison County.

Former criminal defense attorney Ernie Page IV plans to plead guilty next Thursday to a conspiracy charge in federal court in Jacksonville, his attorney said.

"Mr. Page is very sorry for the disappointment he has caused his family by his mistaken judgment in this matter," attorney David Collins said. "A mistake only remains a mistake if it is not corrected. Mr. Page will make this right. Mr. Page will plead guilty next week as charged and assist the authorities in prosecuting other guilty people."

Siegmeister, who was elected as the 3rd Judicial Circuit's state attorney in 2012, resigned suddenly in December, just weeks before the Times-Union confirmed an ongoing federal investigation into alleged corruption. Siegmeister said he resigned due to his then-pending divorce. At the time, his then-wife said that she was “not at liberty to discuss the matter,” but “the truth is long overdue.”

Siegmeister, his attorney and his ex-wife did not return requests for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida declined to comment about the investigation.

Siegmeister has not been publicly charged, and the Department of Justice has yet to acknowledge its investigation into Siegmeister.

In 2017, Page, who Siegmeister later hired as a state prosecutor, represented Richard Lee Gordon, the manager of a tractor dealership in the area. Gordon had two pending DUI cases in Madison County, in addition to a past decade-old DUI.

Page told Siegmeister, who owns livestock and a farm, to go see Gordon about getting a new tractor, according to the charging . Siegmeister told Page that he would reduce one DUI charge for a $10,000 discount and reduce both charges for a $20,000 discount. 

Siegmeister ended up dropping both DUI charges, and that year, according to state records, Siegmeister bought a tractor that he said was worth about $72,000. Siegmeister reported that he had $38,300 in debt for the tractor. The debt, according to state records, was in his wife's name.

The federal charging document said that "it was a part of the conspiracy that J.S. would and did use his position as a high-ranking agent of the State Attorney's Office to solicit, accept, and agree to accept bribes in return for the favorable disposition of criminal cases."

Siegmeister and his attorney didn't return requests for comment, but in January, his attorney said if he were under investigation, Siegmeister would cooperate.

In federal cases, defendants who cooperate early can reduce their sentences.

Gordon, when asked about the federal investigation Tuesday, interrupted. "I'm not interested in that," he said. "Thanks, man."

Interim State Attorney Dave Phelps said he was "disturbed" that federal investigators didn't give him a heads up about the Page investigation, which meant Page continued handling criminal prosecutions while under investigation. Phelps said that when he heard last week about the charges, he fired Page.

Phelps said the normal prosecutor who handled Madison County cases wasn't involved in those cases, and he said he doesn't believe any other office employees are subject to the federal investigation.

"We’re already short-staffed," he said, "and now we’re even shorter staffed."

Federal agents have questioned several defense attorneys in the 3rd Judicial Circuit about allegations of trading favors for favorable outcomes in cases.

Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville defense attorney representing Mike O’Steen, Dixie County’s county attorney and a criminal defense attorney who has donated to Siegmeister’s campaign, said he feels confident that O'Steen didn't do anything wrong, although federal agents are "obviously looking at him."

Despite the new federal charges, Stone said that he's gotten no updates on the status of the investigation into O'Steen.

Stone said prosecutors are looking into a case O'Steen handled involving an internet cafe. Stone said he believes the federal government was trying to ensnare O'Steen with a client who kept asking to pay off Siegmeister to make his criminal charges go away.

Stone said O'Steen told his client, "you're going to pay me, and I'm going to do the work." At one point, Stone said, O'Steen told the client he needed to pay more money to keep going with the defense, something his contract allowed.

Stone wouldn't identify O'Steen's client.

Stone, who represented Kelly Mathis, a business attorney who had a conviction related to internet cafes overturned on appeal, said that it is common for charges related to internet cafes to get diverted or dropped, and nothing about the case is suspicious.

He said the case resolved just before trial. "Mr. Osteen had to work for that result. There was no payola. There was nothing illegal done."

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