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JT Burnette trial day 14: Closing statements complete, jury now deliberating

A courtroom sketch as JT Burnette took the stand in his corruption trial.
A courtroom sketch as JT Burnette took the stand in his corruption trial.(Christopher Rivera)
Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 12:46 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2021 at 5:32 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Day 14 of the JT Burnette trial began with closing statements.

The prosecution’s closing statement took just over two hours, the entire morning. The defense began its closing argument after the lunch break.

The prosecutor opened by saying “this is a case about bribery.”

The prosecution emphasized that bribery is simply an agreement, not an execution of payment.

The prosecutor says Burnette understands the simplicity of bribery because it’s part of his equation in doing business, pointing to the 2016 Nashville couch meeting. The prosecution says Burnette spoke about why, how, and who to pay to get deals done, also asking the undercover FBI agents to bring him in.

The prosecution also argues that many of the things Burnett said on the stand were not consistent with the recordings. Burnette testified that he was “acting” and “appeasing.”

The prosecution suggested the jury compare what Burnette said on the stand with everyone watching to what he said when he believed only the undercover agents were watching.

“If he was just acting, why did he pick [Scott] Maddox?” The prosecutor asked, referring to the meeting in Nashville.

She pointed back to the McKibbon allegations, saying that his bribe to Maddox then shows he wasn’t acting two years later with the undercover agents.

The prosecution showed an outline of the McKibbon situation, tying it into the FBI case.

Undercover agent Mike Miller met Burnette at the Chamber Conference, later introducing him to fellow agent Mike Sweet. The three, plus undercover agent Brian Butler, then traveled to Nashville, where Burnette spoke about his purchase of the DoubleTree.

The prosecution says the testimony of Melissa Oglesby, Lou Shelley, Gary Yordon and Melissa Whittaker contradicts Burnette’s version of the McKibbon situation.

In the prosecution’s timeline, McKibbon asked Governance for representation in April 2013. In June 2013, the prosecution says Burnette offered Maddox $100,000 to recuse himself and for Carter-Smith not to represent McKibbon.

In August 2013, Burnette began to pursue the purchase of the DoubleTree. Charles Simon testified to Burnette’s negotiating tactic: “leveraging his knowledge of local politics to get the the best deal.”

On Sept. 11, 2013, Maddox publicly said he’d recuse himself from the McKibbon decision, but did not file any forms.

On Sept. 19, 2013, Burnette filed a lawsuit against McKibbon. On Sept. 24, 2013, former City Attorney Lou Shelley announced at a City Commission meeting that Maddox did not have a legal conflict, but it was his decision to recuse himself.

In Jan. 2014, the prosecution says Carter-Smith’s meeting with KaiserKane did not go as she expected. She thought she’d be getting a $100,000 payment, but instead got a $10,000, 90-day contract. On Feb. 12, 2014, the McKibbon deal died on a 2-2 vote with Maddox abstaining.

Carter-Smith sent KaiserKane an invoice for $100,000 on Feb. 26, and on Feb. 27, Maddox filed his official recusal form.

On April 3, 2014, Burnette purchased the DoubleTree. On April 14, he told Melissa Oglesby at KaiserKane to pay the $100,00 invoice.

Maddox testified that Burnette did not know he would recuse himself; the prosecution pointed to Burnette and Maddox’s contact on Feb. 11, the day before the vote.

Burnette testified Feb. 11 was the day Maddox and Carter-Smith called him and “strong-armed” him into a $100,000 contract extension for KaiserKane.

The prosecution pointed to the fact that Burnette called Maddox seven other times that day after the 16-minute phone call.

“That’s not the behavior of someone who has just been strong-armed by a commissioner he’s afraid of,” the prosecutor said.

The prosecution also pointed to the date of the $100,000 payment, which was just after Burnette closed on the DoubleTree; they allege he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain until he was sure he had what he wanted.

The government then turned back to Nashville, where Burnette told the agents which commissioners could not be bought during the meeting.

“Look at the tape and the defendant’s own words,” said the prosecutor. “He doesn’t succumb to pressure, he steers the conversation.”

The prosecution says Burnette explained to the agents how to bribe, discussing Maddox’s power over the city manager and other commissioners, how much to pay, and his own role in the scheme.

The next month, when Sweet met Maddox for the first time, Maddox told him to send $20,000 to Governance. Sweet refused and told Burnette about the conversation the next day. On October 19, Burnette discussed paying Governance with Sweet, and on October 24, Burnette confirmed to Mike Miller the money should go through Governance.

On October 29, Burnette told Sweet Maddox only wanted to have “inappropriate conversations” with him. Sweet also met Maddox at a football game that day.

Maddox testified that when he received a check from Southern Pines Development in November 2016, he called Burnette to ask who they were. He said Burnette confirmed it was Miller and Sweet’s company.

The prosecution discussed Burnette’s behavior in Dallas in January 2017, when he told the agents not to stop sending money, threatening to leave the deal if they stop paying.

“This doesn’t sound like acting or appeasing Mike Sweet,” the prosecutor said.

Burnette testified he was scared of Maddox, but the prosecution says other witnesses, including Melissa Oglesby, said he was not a person who could be strong-armed.

The prosecution argues Burnette knew about the payments well before Dallas, and only threatened to leave the deal if the agents stopped paying.

They also say Burnette made five total false statements to the FBI when they came to his house on May 24, 2017.

The prosecution says Burnette’s statements that he didn’t know who Southern Pines Development wrote checks to, didn’t know the name of Paige Carter-Smith’s firm, didn’t know who Southern Pines Development retained, didn’t know the content of their conversations with Maddox, and didn’t know if Southern Pines Development had paid Maddox were all false.

Court resumed at 12:35 p.m. with the defense’s closing statement.

Defense attorney Gregory Kehoe began by telling the jury the government’s entire case hinges on an agreement; he argues there wasn’t one at all.

“Scott Maddox was a government witness, and he told you there was no agreement.”

Kehoe began by talking about Burnette’s initial meeting with Mike Miller at the Chamber Conference. Burnette volunteered to help him, and in a meeting at the DoubleTree a month later, he recommended Will Butler and Ed Murray. In a December 2015 meeting, Burnette recommended Drew Jones and Sean Pittman.

The defense showed a timeline of January 26, 2016 through October 5, 2016 of each time Burnette brought up the Mayco Building, which he believed was a good deal.

“He is trying to do something to help them along,” Kehoe says, pointing to the fact that Burnette never introduced them or suggested they contact Scott Maddox or Paige Carter-Smith.

After bonding with Mike Sweet over medical marijuana in February of 2016, Burnette and Mike Miller toured a possible development in Jacksonville in March.

“Why does he do this? He’s just the guy. He’s one of those people willing to go some hundred miles to Jacksonville to do this,” Kehoe said.

In June 2016, Burnette bought the Mayco Building, which he had repeatedly suggested to the fake developers.

“He put his money on the line and in fact bought it,” Kehoe said. “What does that tell you? What he’s telling you is it’s of value and he’s willing to put his money out to buy it.”

In July of 2016, Mike Sweet brought up Maddox on a phone call.

“Let’s forget about Maddox, because Maddox isn’t the right question,” Burnette said on the recording, steering Sweet back to the issues he believed existed with the Fregly parcel.

“He’s trying to do the right thing and not hurt anybody along the way,” Kehoe told the jurors.

In the Nashville meeting, Kehoe argues Burnette wants to make sure they come to Tallahassee and spend their money in the right place.

“He tells them what they want to hear. Maddox testified that no such arrangement took place,” Kehoe said.

In the October 9th phone call, Kehoe says when Sweet brings up bribery, Burnette deflects and redirects to the FallsChase project.

Kehoe also brought up the November 10th Blackberry Smoke concert conversation, in which Miller asks Burnette where to send the check. Burnette replies “Governance,” adding that they’ll talk about it in Vegas. When Miller asks if he should send the check before then, Burnette replies, “no, no, no.”

“They send the check anyway, they don’t tell him they sent the check, and then they indicted him for it,” Kehoe said.

The defense then turned to the December 2016 Las Vegas trip.

“Mr. Burnette thinks everything is going to be explained, instead they spent $6500 at a strip club,” Kehoe said. “You would think if this is some type of illicit arrangement, that the checks being sent to Maddox would be discussed.”

The defense argues the first time Burnett heard the checks were being sent was on the January 2017 Dallas trip.

When Brunette responds poorly to that news, Sweet says “we opened the door, my bad.”

Kehoe argues that those two checks are counts three and four of honest services mail fraud, which he says Burnett didn’t know about.

He says Brunette’s reaction shows he’s scared of Maddox and “deeply concerned.”

Kehoe says days later in a January 2017 nine minute phone call, Burnette asked Maddox if Southern Pines Development was paying him. Maddox replied no, they are paying Paige Carter-Smith, and I am accusing myself related to that.

Kehoe said the charge of making false statements to the FBI agents was “like a quiz show.”

He argues Burnette was not “calm, cool, and collected,” like the FBI Agent described on the stand.

“He can’t remember. He’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” Kehoe argued.

The defense discussed the McKibbon allegations, saying they were not part of the original investigation until Maddox and Carter-Smith brought it up. Kehoe pointed out that both of those witnesses have taken plea deals.

“They’re doing something to make these folks to my left happy,” Kehoe said, pointing to the Government table.

Kehoe pointed out differing dates of the alleged bribe; the indictment had a date of December 2013, the opening statement had a date of May/June of 2013, and the closing stem went said before September 2013.

He showed phone records that displayed no calls between Maddox and Burnette between April 18 and July 1 of that year.

Kehoe argued the idea that Maddox recused himself because of an arrangement with Burnette is “nonsense.”

He then referred to the February 11, 2014 phone call, which Burnette testified is when Maddox and Carter-Smith asked for $100,000.

“Who in fact is the victim here? Who feels like he needs to do something so he doesn’t get his house burn down?” Kehoe questioned.

The defense’s closing statement finished at 3:25.

On rebuttal, Peter Nothstein told the jury bribery is not the “execution of an official act, it’s this agreement. If the money goes to Paige Carter-Smith’s company because Scott Maddox made an agreement for an official action, that’s a bribe.”

Nothstein emphasized the implicit nature of human interactions, adding that it was normal that Burnette did not immediately open up to the undercover agents.

He added that the way the Government conducted its investigation was not part of the issues the jury would address; “were Mike Sweet’s actions over the top?” he asked. “Yes, that’s the point. Sweet wasn’t hearing what he wanted to, he was hearing what the defense wanted him to hear.”

Nothstein also argued that it was understandable the payment of checks was not discussed by Maddox or the undercover agents in Las Vegas because Burnette had told the agents Maddox only wanted to have “inappropriate conversations” with Burnette.

The prosecution said there was contact between Burnette and Maddox at key dates throughout the case. The attorneys also argue that even the way Burnette described the McKibbon payment on the stand still constitutes bribery.

Judge Hinkle’s jury instructions took just over twenty minutes. The jury left the courtroom around 4:30 to deliberate; they recessed and left the courthouse at 5:00 p.m.

They will continue their deliberations at 9:00 Thursday morning.

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