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‘He was my mentor’: Burnette’s cousin testifies about million-dollar loans at trial

Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 7:54 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The first day of testimony in the JT Burnette trial featured three prosecution witnesses, all connected to the now-defunct company “KaiserKane.”

The prosecution’s first witness was JT Burnette’s cousin, Melissa Oglesby. She confirmed in her testimony that she entered into an agreement with the Government to testify in exchange for immunity.

Oglesby said JT Burnette gave her her first job out of college, saying she worked at Burnette Construction for “quite a while,” and later at GLD Mechanical, which was partially owned by Burnette.

She testified that she purchased Eastern Shores Maritime Company from the defendant’s brother, Will Burnette, and renamed it “KaiserKane.” Oglesby explained that she wanted to apply for the federal 8(A) program and needed a company that had been active for two years.

Oglesby spoke about becoming an 8(A) company, describing it as a program that helps minority contractors negotiate with the federal government without competition. She testified that Burnette thought it would “be a good thing for me to get into,” describing him as a “mentor and advisor.”

She also said the company grew “pretty quickly” in 2008, going up to $20 million in sales annually, up from $4 million the year before.

Oglesby testified that KaiserKane frequently loaned Burnette money, sometimes “a couple million at a time.”

“There was a time when it was three or four times in a week,” she said. “It was just that way because he was someone I trusted.”

Oglesby said the loans were repaid, “not always,” but “often.”

In late 2013, Burnette set up a meeting between Oglesby and Paige Carter-Smith, according to her testimony. Oglesby said KaiserKane was “having a hard time” getting GSA work, and Carter-Smith said she could help through Governance.

“I thought they were like a lobbying firm,” said Oglesby. “I didn’t know they were consultants until the meeting.”

Oglesby testified that Burnette told her she “needed to work smarter, not harder.”

She and Trey Gardner met with Carter-Smith in late 2013, signing a contract on January 10th, 2014, for a $10,000 upfront retainer and success fees.

Oglesby said since Governance never got KaiserKane a GSA contract, no success fees were paid.

On March 7th, 2014, KaiserKane received an invoice from Governance for $100,000.

“It has to be a mistake,” Trey Gardner wrote to the accounting team. “$10,000 is all they will get until we get a project.”

“Do NOT pay this,” Oglesby wrote in an e-mail. “I will talk to JT about it.”

Oglesby testified that Burnette told her the payment “had something to do with Scott Maddox and the DoubleTree,” later adding that he told her it was for Maddox’s help in purchasing the DoubleTree.

That same March, Oglesby approved a million dollar loan to Burnette to finance the purchase of the DoubleTree.

KaiserKane loaned Burnette $1 million on March 27th, a $2.2 million on March 31st, and another $1 million on April 3rd.

When asked why she approved it, Oglesby answered, “I wasn’t going to argue with him about it.”

Oglesby’s e-mails around that time show concern about a lack of cash in KasierKane’s coffers. The prosecution’s evidence showed the $2.2 million loan had been repaid quickly, but back and forth among KaiserKane employees questioned when the rest of the money would be paid.

The prosecution questioned Oglesby on why she approved the loans.

“I trusted JT. He was my mentor, my cousin. I wanted to help him. He’s not easy to argue with,” said Oglesby. “Ultimately, it was going to happen.”

Oglesby said she got frustrated with “money going out all the time.”

E-mails between Oglesby and accountants at The Bean Team outline the loans.

“There are so many at this point they’re all running together,” wrote Melissa Whittaker.

“We’re getting raped!” Oglesby replied.

She sent a draft e-mail to Whittaker and Charles Musgrove, asking, “Can I send this to JT?”

She confirmed to the prosecution that she was “nervous” to talk to him about it, but said she was not “scared of him.”

The defense began cross examination around 11:45, focusing on the ways Burnette helped Oglesby build her company.

Attorney Tim Jansen pointed out, and Oglesby confirmed, that Burnette found Paul Keller, a lobbyist, to assist KaiserKane in getting contracts from the Department of Justice.

Oglesby confirmed that at times, she and her employee Frank Whitley couldn’t get along, and Burnette acted as a buffer “most of the time.”

The defense also introduced e-mails into evidence that showed Burnette handled payment issues between KaiserKane and Keller at one point.

Jansen argued Burnette was trying to help KaiserKane make more money, and he introduced Oglesby to Carter-Smith hoping she could help KaiserKane get GSA (General Services Administration) contracts.

He introduced an initial draft of the contract between KaiserKane and Governance, and Oglesby agreed that it was a bad deal. Jansen then showed the new contract, negotiated by Burnette, and Oglesby agreed it was a significantly better option.

The defense’s evidence gave more insight into KaiserKane’s financials, with DOD contracts for about $3 million in Pensacola and Mayport, and DOJ contracts for about $3 million in Talladega, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. One $3 million contract in D.C. was per floor, with ten floors under construction, meaning the deal was worth 30 million dollars for the life of the project.

Jansen also added that none of the loans to Burnette were illegal, and that Oglesby’s signature was on the $100,000 payment to Governance.

“Mr. Burnette never made any loans, or signed anything without your approval,” he said.

“Would it be fair to say that a $100,000 fee for lobbying would be well worth a GSA contract?” Jansen questioned.

“Yes,” Oglesby answered.

Jansen spoke about the requirements of 8(A) companies to have private work; Oglesby confirmed Burnette was instrumental in obtaining private work for her company and keeping their 8(A) status.

On redirect, the prosecution focused on the nature of Oglesby and Burnette’s relationship, arguing she was indebted to him.

“Is it fair to say that you didn’t ask a lot of questions when he ordered you to transfer money from your company to his?” the attorney asked.

“Yes,” Oglesby answered.

The prosecution’s second witness was Melissa Whittaker, an FSU graduate who began working for The Bean Team in 2012. Whittaker testified that she also worked in offices at the Midtown Filling Station, Hotel Duval, and then Kaiser Kane as part of her work with The Bean Team.

Whittaker’s testified that no one but Oglesby had signature authority, and that KaiserKane would have between 3 and 6 million dollars in the bank, depending on the time of year.

The prosecution also brought up KaiserKane’s payments to Governance.

“I questioned it when it came across my desk,” said Whittaker, citing her e-mails. “I would typically see a subcontract agreement for an agreement of this size.”

Whittaker confirmed Oglesby initially instructing her not to pay the money. She testified that Oglesby then spoke to Burnette about the issue.

“She wasn’t happy with the answer, but she agreed to pay it,” said Whittaker.

During the defense’s cross examination, Whittaker testified that Burnette and Oglesby had a friendly relationship. She also testified that she never saw the official consulting agreement between Governance and KaiserKane.

Tuesday’s third and final witness was Charles Musgrove Jr. He began his testimony by confirming that he had entered a proffer with the government.

When asked what he understood that to mean, Musgrove replied that “if I tell the truth, I will not be prosecuted for the information I provide.”

Musgrove said he founded The Bean Team in September of 2001; he said he met Burnette in 2007, and he said in 2013, more than half of The Bean Team’s work was related to 15 or 20 of Burnette’s companies.

Some of Musgrove’s testimony centered around the liquidation of KaiserKane’s assets at the end of 2014, called the “unwind” in multiple documents. Other witnesses testified that as an 8(A) company, KaiserKane was “sunsetting” from the program.

In the Unwind documents, Oglesby sent an e-mail requesting the $110,000 payment to Governance be taken out of Burnette’s share.

“Did Burnette object to the Governance payments being associated with his share?” the prosecution asked.

“No,” said Musgrove.

Musgrove also testified about the Gateway Project. He said KaiserKane could not develop the land it had purchased from one of Burnette’s companies because the bonding company was against it.

The prosecution showed e-mails between employees of Burnette’s other companies, including Hunter and Harp. Musgrove testified that the property had increased in value since KaiserKane had purchased it, but that they did not reap the benefits of the sale.

“Did KaiserKane receive that $2 million in profit?” asked the prosecution.

“It was paid back to Burnette, to one of his companies,” answered Musgrove.

Court reconvenes at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday morning.

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