Thursday, April 13, 2023

Myers Park, Fallshcase and a 'mafia' mentality: Court traces twists in Tallahassee FBI case. (Tallahassee Democrat)

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the criminal conviction of corrupt businessman J.T. BURNETTE. 

FBI undercover corruption investigation transcripts are convincing and revealing about the sale of zoning, planning and annexation laws in Tallahassee.  

From The Tallahassee Demorats 

Myers Park, Fallshcase and a 'mafia' mentality: Court traces twists in Tallahassee FBI case

Tallahassee Democrat

When a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the bribery conviction of businessman John "J.T." Burnette in an opinion released Tuesday, the court also provided one of the clearest breakdowns of a contorted case that has unfolded over a span of almost five years.

Ever since the Tallahassee Democrat broke the news that the feds dropped subpoenas on City Hall, the case has gripped Tallahasseeans as details dripped out about FBI front companies, undercover agents schmoozing elected officials and trips to Vegas.

On the Front Page of USA TODAY:FBI agents went undercover in Florida's capital for the 'biggest investigation in years'

Here is how the case became one of the most substantial FBI stings in years and led to Burnette's conviction, as told verbatim by the appeals court.

John Burnette controlled a substantial real-estate syndicate in Tallahassee, Florida. In the course of his business, he became “friend[s]” with Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox. In 2015, the FBI initiated an undercover operation to investigate public corruption in Tallahassee. Two agents created a fictitious company called Southern Pines and posed as a property developer, Michael Miller, and an investor, Michael Sweet.

““Miller” and “Sweet” befriended Burnette and, over the course of several months, engaged in discussions about development opportunities with him and Maddox — many of which the agents secretly recorded.

Burnette, Miller, and Sweet together pinpointed two projects for further consideration. First, they would encourage Tallahassee officials to “annex” a parcel of land called Fallschase, which was situated just outside the city limits, in order to increase its value. Second, they would aim to convince officials to approve a Request for Proposal authorizing the city to invite potential developers (like themselves) to bid for a city-owned property called Myers Park.In recorded conversations in July and September 2016, Burnette instructed Miller and Sweet that they would need to pay Maddox for his votes on the Fallschase and Myers Park projects because he was “very transactional” and wanted his “piece of pie.” In the September conversation, Burnette told the agents that while they might be able to persuade the other commissioners “on the merits,” Maddox could “convince” his colleagues if the agents paid “$10,000 a month the next 3 years for [Maddox] to lobby” on their behalf.

Although at one point Burnette counseled Miller and Sweet to wait because he “hate[d] to see” them “spend money and not know exactly what [they were] doing,” he emphasized that it was “money well spent” if they were going to “do a deal here.”

Caught on tape:Five revealing excerpts from the FBI's Scott Maddox tapes

From 'Boy Mayor' to 44 counts:The career arc of Tallahassee Commissioner Scott Maddox

This photo shows the three men believed to be undercover FBI agents who used aliases and cover stories as part of an investigation in Tallahassee. Pictured from left are Mike Miller, Mike Sweet and Brian Butler. The Democrat decided to blur the physical characteristics of the men after discussions with the FBI.

Maddox subsequently met with Miller and Sweet and agreed to “run interference” and help them with “whatever [they] needed”—so long as (1) Burnette remained “involved” and (2) they paid $10,000 a month to Governance Services, a company run by Maddox’s girlfriend, Paige Carter-Smith.

(Maddox instructing Sweet to pay Governance “so I would not be conflicted out if you hadcoming up in front of me” and assuring Sweet that “J.T. [i.e., Burnette] will tell you who [Governance] is”); (Carter-Smith testifying that she found it “very curious that [she] was getting paid and [she] was not being asked to do anything”).

Burnette echoed Maddox’s request that Miller and Sweet “run [payments] through Governance.”

In November 2016, consistent with Maddox’s instructions, the agents sent a $10,000 check to Governance, which Carter-Smith received. Maddox told Burnette about the payment.

Miller and Sweet arranged a trip to Las Vegas for themselves, Burnette, and Maddox in early December 2016. While in Vegas, the four discussed both Fallschase and Myers Park. In particular, Sweet and Burnette told Maddox (1) thatthey wanted to move forward with the annexation of Fallschase, and (2) that they wanted Maddox to “throttle”—i.e., slow-roll — the Myers Park project “until the time it’s appropriate for [them] to move on it."

Burnette told Miller and Sweet that Maddox would help to ensure that the city annexed Fallschase and delayed the Myers Park RFP.

Scott Maddox and J.T. Burnette are pictured with at least three undercover FBI agents. After internal discussions and conversation with the FBI, the Democrat decided to blur the faces of the undercover agents and three unidentified individuals.

One other Vegas-related incident bears brief mention here: Evidence in the record indicates that during the trip, Sweet bought Maddox either a private dance or oral sex (or perhaps both) at a strip club. As we’ll explain in due course, the district court’s decision to exclude some of that evidence forms the basis for one of Burnette’s challenges.

Following the Las Vegas trip, the agents sent two more $10,000 checks to Governance—one in mid-December and another in late January. To be sure, Burnette occasionally sent Miller and Sweet mixed messages about the payments. He twice insinuated, for instance, that he didn’t “want [Sweet] to think that [he] can effectively pay these people and get a[ ] vote” and that, if he did, Maddox would “just recuse himself, and [not] vote.”

And Burnette emphasized his above-board wins with the commission, once telling Sweet: “5-0 vote, did not pay a $. Tallahassee is just about doing the right thing.” At trial, Sweet testified — over objection — that he considered Burnette’s comments to be “false exculpatory” statements.

"Mike Sweet," an undercover FBI agent, is seen at The Edison restaurant. The Democrat decided to blur Sweets' face after discussions with the FBI. Sweets was among several undercover agents sent to Tallahassee to uncover public corruption.
(Photo: Special to the Democrat)

All the while, though, Burnette reiterated to Miller and Sweet that Maddox would move Fallschase through the city commission in exchange for their money and, in fact, warned the agents not to stop sending checks, for fear that Maddox — whom Burnette called “god damn mafia” and “a revengeful mother (expletive),” — might engage in retribution. For instance:

  • Sweet: Are you sending the checks to Maddox?
  • Miller: Yeah. Sending what you told me to send.
  • Burnette: Let me tell you this, don’t stop that. . . . It’ll get done. [Maddox will] get it run through [the city manager] . . . . It’ll be a 3-1 vote.
  • Sweet: “Well at this point we’ve put him in a paycheck.” . . .
  • Burnette: “You can’t take him out.”; “$10,000 a month, and it’s all going to be okay . . . [Maddox] isn’t going to vote, but he’s going to make sure that the votes are enough.”
  • Sweet: “So . . . keep Maddox on the payroll.”
  • Burnette: “Yeah.”
  • Burnette on March 13, 2017: “I would continue to pay [Carter-Smith] the ten thousand dollars . . . .”
  • Maddox: “I told [Carter-Smith] that I thought they were going to move forward with Fallschase.”

The bill:Federal prosecutors in N. Florida collected $4.3M in 2022; a big chunk came from J.T. Burnette

'I let all those lines cross':Scott Maddox on his descent from public service to bribery

During a meeting in late March 2017, Maddox and Carter-Smith both made statements to Miller and Sweet insisting that Maddox was only acting in the city’s best interests and that they considered the agents’ payments to be for legitimate purposes. Miller testified at trial that he thought Maddox was “tr[ying] to change” the “way he presented Governance . . . like it was an arm’s length lobbying firm,” and Sweet explained his view that Maddox “was really making false exculpatory statements claiming that he was just doing whatever was best for the city.”

At that point, Miller and Sweet decided to terminate the undercover operation and shifted to an overt investigation.In May 2017, two different FBI agents interviewed Burnette about his dealings with Maddox, Miller, and Sweet.A federal grand jury indicted Burnette, Maddox, and Carter-Smith for their roles in the alleged bribery scheme. Maddox and Carter-Smith pleaded guilty; Burnette didn’t.

Following a 17-day trial, a jury convicted Burnette on five counts: one of Hobbs Act extortion; two of honest-services mail fraud; one of using a facility of interstate commerce to facilitate unlawful activity; and one of making a material false statement to the FBI.

The district court imposed a below-guidelines sentence of 36 months’ imprisonment followed by one year of supervised release.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When will they pick up Billy the Bamboozler?