Feds closing arguments, defense

JT Burnette’s fate in the hands of the jury

The public corruption case of businessman John “JT” Burnette was finally submitted to the jury on Wednesday, a month after his trial began at the US courthouse in Tallahassee.

Government and defense lawyers spent most of the day delivering their arguments. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle instructed the jury on how to apply the law to the evidence in the case before sending it out to begin deliberations.

Jurors seized the case shortly after 4:30 p.m. and decided to retire for the night about half an hour later. They will return on Thursday morning to continue to consider whether or not to find Burnette guilty or not guilty of racketeering, extortion and related charges.

Related: Burnette told FBI agents he helped Florida lawmakers eliminate competition in medical marijuana law

Watchmen and supervised: Two men become legal spectators at JT Burnette trial

Burnette, who bought and sold the Duval Hotel before acquiring the DoubleTree Hotel, is accused of paying former City Commissioner and Mayor Scott Maddox a $ 100,000 bribe in exchange for his help kill a rival downtown hotel project. He is also accused of facilitating $ 40,000 in bribes to Maddox from undercover FBI agents posing as developers looking for an “inside lead” on their alleged plans. real estate.

Both sides again played snippets of secretly taped conversations between Burnette and the agents, including “Mike Miller,” who introduced himself as the owner of Southern Pines Development, a front of the FBI, and “Mike Sweet,” who himself. pretended to be a rich former drug dealer. became a medical marijuana entrepreneur. The conversations were recorded by wire agents during out-of-town trips to Las Vegas, Nashville and Dallas in late 2016 and early 2017.

Rosaleen O’Gara, a lawyer with the United States Department of Justice, told jurors that while the case involved complicated financial transactions and other complex issues, it ultimately came down to whether Burnette had concluded a corruption deal with Maddox.

“The defendant understands the simplicity of what corruption is,” said O’Gara. “It’s part of the equation of how business is done in Tallahassee.”

However, Greg Kehoe, one of Burnette’s defense attorneys, told jurors that Burnette agreed to discuss corruption with the undercover agents because they promised to invest more than $ 40 million in Tallahassee.

“It was Mr. Burnette blowing smoke at these guys and telling them what they wanted to hear,” Kehoe said.

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Burnette, who testified for three days, told jurors that Maddox and his girlfriend and business partner Paige Carter-Smith hit him for $ 100,000 in February 2014, just before a key City Board vote. on a project involving the McKibbon Hotel. Group, a former Maddox lobbying client who wanted to build a Hampton Inn downtown.

The defendant testified that he accepted the payment out of fear that Carter-Smith would personally lobby for the McKibbon Hotel, which allegedly competed with the DoubleTree Hotel he was trying to buy at the time.

“The accused said he agreed because he thought he was heavily armed by Maddox,” O’Gara said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this claim is simply not supported by any of the evidence you have seen.”

But Kehoe said Burnette was trying to make the most of a bad situation by paying the $ 100,000. Burnette knew from previous experience with Maddox that he was “vengeful,” once swearing he was out of power to ruin the next ten plans of a businessman who had sided with him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, who is actually the victim here?” Kehoe asked. “(It’s) Mr. Burnette.”

Kehoe said undercover agents often steered conversations into the territory of corruption, even when Burnette attempted to talk about legitimate business. He said they changed the subject – at one point in suggesting the trip to Vegas – when Burnette made statements that seemed to undermine their case.

“It’s like a trivia game,” Kehoe said. “If you don’t give the answer the government wants… you get the buzzer. Thanks for playing. “

Peter Nothstein, deputy director of the Department of Justice’s public integrity section, refuted Kehoe’s closing arguments, saying Burnette’s involvement was clear from, among other things, lies he told the FBI in May 2017 after the end of the secret part of the investigation.

“If all of this was legitimate, everything was fine, why lie? Kehoe asked. “Because it wasn’t. Mr. Burnette knew exactly what he was doing. He was engaged in a corrupt plot.

More trial coverage:

Earlier coverage

The public bribery case against Tallahassee businessman John “JT” Burnette is scheduled to go to jury today, nearly a month after his federal trial began.

Government attorneys and defense attorneys for Burnette present closing arguments this morning. After that, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle will review the instructions with the jurors before they begin their deliberations.

Burnette, owner of the DoubleTree Hotel and several other companies, spent three days in the witness stand, although her testimony was interrupted by an almost two-week break in the trial caused by a juror who fell with COVID-19.

He is accused of paying then-commissioner Scott Maddox a bribe of $ 100,000 in exchange for his abstention in a vote involving the McKibbon Hotel Group, which wanted to build a Hampton Inn that would have rivaled with the hotel assets of Burnette. He is also accused of facilitating $ 40,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as developers at Maddox’s consultancy firm, Governance.

Burnette told jurors he authorized the payment of $ 100,000 for Maddox’s girlfriend and business partner, Paige Carter-Smith, so that she would not lobby for McKibbon. The money went from KaiserKane, a Burnette family business that prosecutors say it controlled, to Governance.

He testified that Maddox and Carter-Smith asked him for money on February 11, 2014, the day before a key Municipal Commission vote to expand an option on city-owned land on Monroe and Tennessee streets in McKibbon for his hotel project. Maddox left the committee chamber before the vote and formally recused himself on February 27, 2014, the day after Governance drew up an invoice to KaiserKane for the $ 100,000.

Burnette called the payment Maddox’s “shakedown” and suggested he accept it because he fears retaliation from the powerful commissioner and former mayor. But federal prosecutors said Burnette made up the story when interviewing Burnette on Tuesday.

Here are the highlights for Wednesday at the US Courthouse in Tallahassee:

“It was Mr. Burnette blowing smoke”

Greg Kehoe, one of Burnette’s defense attorneys, presented his closing arguments for nearly two hours. He told jurors that there was no agreement between Burnette and Maddox to participate in a bribery scheme together.

“Scott Maddox was a government witness and what did he tell you? Kehoe asked the jurors. “He told you that there was no deal, that there was no extortion in this FBI case, that these checks that were coming in were not part of a fraud scheme. . “

Kehoe said Burnette accepted corruption talks with undercover FBI agents because he didn’t want them leaving Tallahassee without investing millions of dollars in real estate projects.

“It was Mr. Burnette blowing smoke at these guys and telling them what they wanted to hear,” Kehoe said.

“Your job is to decide”

Rosaleen O’Gara, a prosecutor with the United States Department of Justice, spent nearly two hours making closing arguments on behalf of the government.

She told jurors that while the trial involved complicated financial instructions and other complexities, it boiled down to a corruption case, which she described as “just a deal” to provide something of value in return for it. ‘an official act.

O’Gara told jurors the highlights of the case, including the many comments Burnette made on trips to Las Vegas, Dallas and Nashville in which he described to FBI secret agents how the system worked in Tallahassee and how Maddox could be paid to do their job. bid.

“Your job is to decide whether the government has proven the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “Evidence shows that the accused paid a bribe to (former City Commissioner Scott Maddox) in 2014 and 2016 and 2017 (obtained undercover FBI agents) to do the same. “

The defense will present oral argument after a lunch break. After that, the government has another chance to make its case before the jury is instructed on how to apply the law to the allegations and begins its deliberations.

Come back to Tallahassee.com to learn more about this story.

Contact Jeff Burlew at [email protected] or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

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