Friday, October 15, 2021

Former Lynn Haven commissioner Antonius Barnes pleads guilty to federal corruption charges. (Panama City News Herald)

Another guilty plea in mushrooming Lynn Haven, Florida municipal corruption scandal. 

From Panama City News Herald: 

Former Lynn Haven commissioner Antonius Barnes pleads guilty to federal corruption charges

Tom McLaughlin

The News Herald

October 15, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Add the name of former City Commissioner Antonius Barnes to the list of Lynn Haven officials who have pleaded guilty to charges uncovered by investigators digging into the theft of FEMA money in the wake of Hurricane Michael.

Barnes faces 30 years in federal prison after accepting responsibility for making false statements to a federally insured institution. A Statement of Facts filed in the case states Barnes lied about his indebtedness and financial history to obtain a $23,681 loan from Innovations Federal Credit Union.

In exchange for the plea, which was tendered Oct. 8, the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to drop six other charges against Barnes, which primarily centered on his acceptance of multiple "loans" from Phoenix Construction owner James Finch that he was never obligated to repay.

Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas, Federal Bureau of Investigation, speaks during a press conference Thursday, March 18, 2021 to announce further charges and developments in the federal case dealing with corruption in Lynn Haven. 

In return for the loans, the Statement of Facts said, Brown helped steer contracting business to Finch.

"Antonius Barnes would dance for me if I wanted him to," the Statement of Fact quotes Finch as saying in a conversation with former Lynn Haven City Manager Michael White. "He probably wants more money."

Finch was indicted alongside Barnes. The two men were tied to a conspiracy to defraud that also involved former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and former Lynn Haven City Attorney Adam Albritton. The conspiracy count has been dropped, but Anderson and Finch still face multiple charges.

Albritton pleaded guilty Sept. 24 to wire fraud and honest services fraud. He had faced more than 60 federal charges. He is scheduled for sentencing Dec. 10.

Anderson and Finch have not entered pleas. A trial in their cases has been tentatively set for Oct. 26.

Both Barnes and Albritton were obligated as part of their plea agreements to state under oath whether they would or would not cooperate with the federal government in ongoing prosecutions. Those statements are not available for public review.

Anderson and Barnes are thus far the only Lynn Haven elected officials to be swept up in the scandal that federal officials say entailed the theft of more than $5 million of FEMA money. The funds were funneled through city coffers to help the city recover from the devastation of Hurricane Michael in 2018.

White, the former city manager, and former city Community Services Director David Horton also were charged in the corruption scandal. Both have pleaded guilty and await sentencing.

David White, the owner of Erosion Control Specialist, and his sister Shannon Rodriguez, the company bookkeeper, also have pleaded guilty in the case, as has Joshua Anderson, the former owner of Greenleaf Lawn Care of Bay County. All three await sentencing along with Michael White and Horton.

The FBI found that David White, Rodriguez and Anderson contracted with the city of Lynn Haven for debris removal and landscaping services that were either never done or fraudulently invoiced. In return, the city officials received kickbacks.  

Former Bay County Commissioner Keith Baker also was arrested, by local authorities, in the fallout from the scandal. He has been charged with official misconduct, bid rigging and fraud. His trial has not been scheduled.

Barnes, according to the Statement of Facts filed in his case, had been in office less than five months when he accepted his first "loan" from Finch, who is identified in the court document only as "Individual A."

The first loan, provided Sept. 8, 2015, was followed by a second of $12,000 handed out 20 days later, court documents show. Barnes took a loan of $5,000 on Oct. 28, 2015, another of $10,000 on Jan. 26, 2016, and three others — for $2,500, $2,500 and $5,000 respectively — through the end of his term in office.   

He failed to notify Hancock Bank of his outstanding debt in 2016 when he applied for and received a business loan from that institution, which would later sue him for defaulting while still owing $20,675, according to the court record.

The federal charges state Barnes lied twice when filling out the documents necessary to obtain another loan from Innovations Federal Credit Union.

"Had IFCU known that Barnes had outstanding loans of $45,000 to (Finch), that Barnes was indebted to Hancock Bank and that Hancock Bank had filed suit against Barnes to recover on the defaulted loan, IFCU would not have extended a loan to Barnes," the Statement of Facts said. 

There are strong indications that the FBI investigation of wrongdoing in Lynn Haven and Bay County has not been concluded. In August, the agency, along with the Bay County Sheriff's Office, served a search warrant at the Panama City offices of GAC Contracting. 

Albritton had business ties to GAC Contracting and personal ties to Derwin White, the recently deceased head of the company. David White, owner of Erosion Control Specialist, is Derwin White's nephew.

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