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JT Burnette corruption trial resumes after 12 day hiatus

Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 12:02 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2021 at 5:25 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Day 12 of the JT Burnette trial has begun after a 12-day break.

Judge Robert Hinkle began Monday morning by reiterating that health and safety are priorities in his courtroom. He said he’s using the CDC’s “symptom-based strategy, not a test-based strategy.”

“This juror poses no risk to others; in fact, he’s probably the safest person in the courtroom,” Hinkle added.

Burnette had been on the stand when court recessed for more than a week; his testimony continued Monday morning.

Burnette testified that he repeatedly checked in with undercover FBI agent Mike Miller on whether Mike Sweet, another undercover agent, was legitimate, and completely out of the illegal drug business.

He said he knew the medical marijuana license Trulieve had received was “sensitive.”

At a February 2016 meeting at Madison Social, Burnette recommended the Southern Pines Development team reach out to Will Butler and Drew Jones.

When asked why he didn’t want to get paid, he replied, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Burnette testified that Mike Sweet “always wanted to pay somebody,” and said he repeatedly told Sweet he shouldn’t need to pay anyone.

When undercover agent Brian Butler suggested he was interested in developments in Jacksonville, Burnette researched and texted Miller days later about an opportunity in that city. The two eventually visited the site as well, but no development materialized.

Burnette spoke about his relationship with Mike Sweet. He said Sweet answered his questions about medical marijuana, adding that his recommendations were “a big key to what Trulieve is today.”

In return, Burnette testified he would try to “keep [Sweet] out of trouble on the real estate side.”

Burnette repeatedly pushed the fake developers toward the Mayco property, adding that he believed the Fregly properties they were looking at were not feasible for development. As of a June 2016 conversation, Burnette testified he had never brought up Scott Maddox, Paige Carter-Smith, or Governance.

He referred to a July 2016 call with Sweet as “the suicide call.”

In it, he tried to steer Sweet away from the Fregly property, while trying to avoid bashing Miller’s expertise.

At one point, Sweet brought up traveling outside Tallahassee with Maddox.

“Why Scott Maddox?” Burnette said he thought at the time.

“Let’s forget about Maddox, because Maddox isn’t the right question,” he said on the call. “I think you’ve been helpful to me, I’m trying to be helpful.”

Burnette testified that he was concerned Sweet was going to lose his money in the deal Miller was working on.

After the morning break, the defense turned to the September 2016 trip to Nashville.

Burnette testified he believed he would be helping Mike Miller pitch to his investors, Mike Sweet and Brian Butler. Burnette and Miller spoke before the meeting.

During the conversation, Miller referred to an “inside track.”

“My takeaway was I needed to go upstairs and sell Mike Sweet,” Burnette testified.

Miller also told Burnette that “access” was a “big piece” of what they do. Burnette replied that wasn’t a guarantee; he testified that his takeaway was that Miller understood, but Burnette needed to show off for Mike Sweet.

Burnette testified he also told Miller that Mike Sweet and Brian Butler’s presence and inappropriate comments would likely scare away political consultants and lobbyists, citing Drew Jones as an example.

“You can’t go march cocaine cowboy into City Hall,” Burnette said on the stand.

Miller told Burnette Sweet and Butler knew they shouldn’t be meeting commissioners.

“I think he wanted me to go up there and sell Mike Sweet, that he could buy whatever he wanted to buy, do what he wanted to do,” Burnette said. “Mike Sweet just wanted to believe in Santa Claus.”

During the meeting itself, which attorneys have been calling the “couch meeting” due to the video of Miller and Burnette sitting on a coach, Burnette told the agents he would “take care of Scott.”

Burnette testified that he was not being truthful in that moment, but rather placating Butler and Sweet.

He also told them, “don’t buy access that you don’t know you need.”

Burnette testified that he was confused, saying Sweet wanted to pay someone off when Burnette didn’t know what development they were doing.

He also said on the stand that his use of the word “access” meant paying a lobbyist to connect a person with a commissioner to hear their concerns about a project.

“Access doesn’t mean bribe, does it?” Tim Jansen questioned.

“No,” Burnette replied.

Later that evening, when Burnette and Miller were alone together, Burnette mentioned FallsChase. He testified that Miller instantly asked, “what if Scott Maddox doesn’t like it?”

“Don’t you go drinking the Kool-Aid, that’s for these yahoos not you,” Burnette said he was thinking.

He testified that he believed Miller understood Southern Pines wouldn’t actually be able to bribe Commissioners. He said he “catered things in the most corrupt way to appease Brian Butler and Mine Sweet.”

When Mike Sweet was in Tallahassee a month later, he told Burnette that if he hadn’t convinced him of an inside track, Sweet would have backed out.

Burnette testified that he did not introduce Mike Sweet to Scott Maddox, saying he was told Mike Sweet knew he didn’t need to meet Scott Maddox.

In October, Sweet reached out to Burnette to try to set up a trip to Las Vegas, asking him to schedule it with Maddox. Burnette said on the recording that he and Maddox kept missing each other, but testified that he had never actually reached out.

During the call, Sweet mentions paying money.

“This is the first time he’s telling me about paying $10,000, and I’m trying to change the subject,” said Burnette.

“Did you ever take any money?” Jansen asked.

“No,” Burnette replied.

In a meeting later that day, Burnette and Maddox met up for a short period of time. Burnett testified that he asked Max if he wanted to go to Las Vegas, and Maddox said no.

Burnette also testified that he asked about Paige Carter-Smith’s experience with FallsChase, telling Maddox she might be an option to hire, but adding that the conversation was contingent on getting the property under contract.

Five days later, Mike Miller called Burnette, saying Mike Sweet had worked out a deal with Scott Maddox. Burnette testified it was the first he learned of that, and that it was the first time Governance was mentioned.

During the call, Burnette says “it’s a good place to start, you’ve got a little runway.”

He testified that he meant they did not need to pay anybody without a project, saying he wanted them to “pump the brakes.”

On the call, he also says the money is “definitely for Maddox.” He testified he thought Miller wanted him to say it was a Bribe to please Mike Sweet.

On October 29, Burnette picked Mike Sweet up and took him to the Edison to meet with the other fake developers.

“I was trying to keep them away from Maddox, I was trying to get them to back off,” Burnette said. “These guys were talking about paying a bribe. I’ve never paid a bribe before in my life, and I didn’t want to be in the middle.”

He told the agents he’d talk to Maddox about “how he wanted to receive those funds,” but testified that he never did.

That same day, in a one on one conversation between Burnette and Sweet, Burnette told Sweet that paying the money was not the way he did business, saying he would figure out what an issue was, and then solve it.

“I was OK letting them believe whatever, then they started talking about doing it, that’s a different ball game,” Burnette said about bribes.

He testified that he was trying to keep the agents away from Maddox, saying, “as long as I’m in the middle of this there is no payment gonna happen.”

Burnette testified that he told the agents Maddox did not want to go on a “weird trip to Vegas.”

Sweet told Burnette they could make it a legitimate investors trip, with Maddox coming in his capacity as a City Commissioner to pitch Tallahassee.

Burnette said he spoke to Maddox, who agreed to go if the trip was legitimate.

Burnette testified about a November 2016 Blackberry Smoke concert, when he and the agents when to the Tallahassee Mall event, Madison Social, and then Potbelly’s.

A recording of a conversation between Miller and Burnette has Miller asking who to send the check to, and Burnette replying “Governance.” Miller then asks if he should send it before the trip to Vegas, and Burnette replies no.

“I was okay letting them believe in Santa Claus, but when it came to actually paying— woah, no, hold on,” Burnette testified. “I never saw any check until after the fact.”

Burnette then testified about the December 2016 trip to Las Vegas. He said on the four hour flight there were no conversations about bribery, checks sent to Governance or Paige Carter-Smith, or illegal activity.

That night at a strip club, Agent Sweet told Burnette and Maddox they didn’t need to sell the project, saying, “they don’t give a **** about Tallahassee.”

Burnette said the comment bothered him because he had only convinced Maddox to go on the trip by telling him it was legitimate.

“I wanted to choke him out,” he said of Mike Sweet at the time.

Burnette testified about meeting undercover agents Ravi Gupta and Jack DeWitt at the club. He said it was “refreshing to talk to somebody who made sense.”

He said he spoke with the two for 30-40 minutes about FallsChase, calling it a “breath of fresh air,” adding that the two understood nothing was a guarantee.

Burnette also testified that he ran into Mike Miller one on one at the club, and Miller told him he had run the FallsChase numbers and they were “better than he expected.”

The next day, Mike Sweet, Burnette, and Maddox had a conversation in the lobby about FallsChase. Burnette said he believed everything was a done deal and all set.

When Maddox and Burnette arrived at the airport to fly back to Tallahassee, Burnette testified that Maddox was “pretty pissed,” saying, “I’m not doing anything for these guys.”

Burnette said he was apologetic that the trip wasn’t what they thought it would be, saying it was exactly what he was afraid of.

He said Sweet made it a “weird trip” to Vegas, and “we lost Scott Maddox.”

Days after returning from Vegas, Burnette said he felt he needed to call Mike Sweet.

“I knew I was wrong to let Mike Sweet believe what he was believing, I stopped money from going to Scott Maddox before Las Vegas, but never had the conversation I wanted to have,” he said. “There was no way Jack DeWitt was going to be involved in the kind of horseplay Mike Sweet was suggesting.”

On that December 6, 2016 call, Burnette said to Sweet, “I don’t want you to think you can effectively pay these people and get a vote.”

Burnette said on the stand that Sweet had made his job harder with the trip to Las Vegas after Maddox’s reaction.

“I don’t want this guy up there paying somebody,” he said.

He testified that Sweet seemed to understand

The defense then turned to Burnette’s trip to Dallas with the undercover agents in January of 2017.

During that conversation, Mike Sweet said, “I pay for votes.”

Burnette testified that hearing Sweet say that after their December 2016 phone call made him “pissed,” saying it was like Groundhog Day.

When the agents discussed paying a Commissioner to annex FallsChase into the City, Burnette said he didn’t understand.

“Why are you paying a Commissioner to get the City more money?” he said on the stand. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Mike Sweet then asked Mike Miller if he was paying Maddox.

“I had no idea,” Burnette said. “This was the first time I heard they were sending checks.

Burnette also explained why he told the agents not to stop paying Maddox.

“The bully in the schoolyard doesn’t always know he’s a bully,” Burnette said of Maddox.

He said he believed if they hired Carter-Smith, Maddox wouldn’t attack her clients because of their romantic relationship.

“I had a heart attack that they were paying a City Commissioner. I just can’t believe where I’m at. I’m ticked off that they did this, I’m red faced, I’m mad,” Burnette testified.

Burnette testified that he did not know whether Scott Maddox was getting money from Governance.

“Right or wrong, I’ve always feared Scott Maddox. It felt like the McKibbon thing all over again,” he said.

After returning from Dallas, Burnette said he called SCott Maddox days later. He testified that Maddox told him Southern Pines was paying Carter-Smith for lobbying in the County, and she sent them a contract. Burnette said Maddox told him he wouldn’t vote in anything that came up before the City.

In a February 2017 meeting with Burnette and the undercover agents at Madison Social, he told them he would use his political capital to help them.

He described using political capital as “doing the right thing and earning trust,” citing the Killearn project he was working on.

During that meeting, Burnette said he told Mike Miller he was mistaken that paying Paige Carter-Smith was a fix for any project; he said it was specifically for FallsChase.

The defense also introduced videos from a City Commission meeting detailing the Killearn project Burnette had discussed. Burnette said he was doing the right thing and building the trust.

“I’m not squeezing every oink out of the pig,” he said, using a metaphor to explain not packing homes onto every available lot.

Burnette’s direct testimony wrapped up Monday afternoon; his cross examination will begin Tuseday morning.

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