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‘Greed’ or ‘Government overreach’? Prosecution and defense make opening statements in Burnette corruption trial

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 6:12 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Day One of the JT Burnette trial consisted of jury selection and opening statements.

Jury selection began around 9:00 a.m. Monday, wrapping up at 12:45 p.m. The jury has ten women and four men. Opening statements then began at 2:00 p.m.

The prosecution’s opening statement lasted about 45 minutes, with Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Kunz speaking.

Kunz told the jury, “this is a case about corruption in the city of Tallahassee between 2012 and 2017.” He says JT Burnette helped former City Commissioner Scott Maddox commit a “violation of public trust.”

“This is a case about greed,” said Kunz. “Pure, unadulterated desire for money.”

Kunz broke the case against Burnette down into three parts:

  • 2013-2014: $100,000 bribe to kill McKibbon hotel project
  • 2015-2017: $40,000 bribe from FBI agents posing as real estate developers (in 4 $10,000 bribes)
  • May 2017: lying to the FBI

The prosecution said Burnette used KaiserKane, which is owned by his cousin, to send the payments to Governance, Maddox’s company.

Kunz spoke at length about the McKibbon Group looking to build a hotel. He says in 2013, Burnette owned Hotel Duval, was hoping to buy the DoubleTree, and did not want a new competitor on the corner of Monroe and Tennessee.

The prosecution alleges Burnette paid $100,000 to Governance, and in September of 2013, Maddox announced he would recuse himself from the City Commission vote on the project.

The vote was tied 2-2, and the development failed. The prosecution said in February of 2014, Governance invoiced $100,000 from KaiserKane, and in April, Burnette instructed them to pay the money.

During opening statements, the Government also discussed Burnette’s meetings and dealings with the undercover FBI agents, “Mike Miller,” “Mike Sweets,” and “Brian Butler.”

Kunz says in September of 2015, Burnette told them to do business, they “needed to pay Scott Maddox.” By January of 2017, the prosecution alleged Burnette told the agents not to stop paying.

The defense’s opening statement took more than 2 hours, with Burnette’s attorneys playing recordings of multiple conversations between him and FBI agents.

Tim Jansen said this is a case about “government overreach.”

He said Burnette is a “visionary that has done so much for this community,” calling him a “creative mind,” and citing his multiple development projects.

Jansen painted a picture of Burnette as a hometown hero, a man “from Monticello, with little more than a high school diploma.”

He cited Burnette’s accomplishments, from his work on Hotel Duval, to creating Eve on Adams at the DoubleTree.

“Of course, the pandemic destroyed that,” Jansen added.

Jansen said every single recording of conversations between Burnette and FBI agents is important in context. He argued that Burnette and his wife, Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers, live in Tallahassee because they love it, and want to make it a better place.

“Once you look at all the evidence, Burnette had no criminal intent to bribe. He tried to dissuade them for a year, a year and a half, not to pay,” Jansen said.

Jansen said Burnette is non confrontational by nature, and that he was trying to help the agents get a good deal.

“He’s a quiet, unassuming person,” said Jansen. " He was trying to get them to do the right thing economically. He’s all economics.”

Jansen discussed the defense’s timeline of events with the jury. He says Burnette first met Mike Miller at the Chamber Conference in August of 2015, but they didn’t connect until months later.

Miller was posing as the head of a fake company called “Southern Pines,” looking to invest in Tallahassee. Jansen pointed out that Burnette repeatedly referred real estate developers Will Butler and Ed Murray to the agent, rather than Maddox.

Jansen said in early 2016, Burnette asked FBI UC Agent “Mike Sweets” for advice about Trulieve; Sweets was posing as a medical marijuana entrepreneur ready to invest in Southern Pines’ development. He said the advice turned out well for the company, and Burnette felt loyal to Sweets, hoping to keep him out of any bad investments.

During a meeting in Nashville, Jansen said Burnette was told by the agents their “investors” “need to know you have the inside track.” Jansen argued Burnette was playing along.

“It’s two parties acting,” he said. “My client is acting; he says things that are simply not true.”

Burnette’s attorney also argued that his client didn’t know about the payments to Governance until they’d been happening for months, and that he was upset when he found out.

“Burnette got mad because he didn’t authorize it. If he had authorized it why would he get mad?” Jansen questioned.

Jansen said as of November 2016, Burnette told agents “don’t send a check,” and that he did not learn of the $10,000 payments until three had been sent.

Burnette’s defense team worked to cast doubt on Maddox and Carter-Smith’s testimony about the McKibbon Hotel Group Deal.

“Scott Maddox couldn’t say when, where, or how,” Jansen said. “He had no supporting documentation.”

Jansen also pointed out that Maddox, Carter-Smith, and former City Manager Rick Fernandez all had burner phones, but Burnette did not. He argued there are discrepancies in the testimony on the timing of the $100,000 payment and Maddox’s decision to recuse himself from the vote.

Jansen’s opening statement wrapped up around 4:45 p.m.

Court reconvenes at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday.

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