Grand jury meets Tuesday for FBI probe into Tallahassee development

By: Mariel Carbone | WCTV Eyewitness News
July 10, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- A grand jury is set to convene Tuesday morning to look through documents regarding development deals in Tallahassee.

Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s office issued two subpoenas, one to the City of Tallahassee, and a second to the Community Redevelopment Agency, following an investigation by the FBI. The subpoenas demand any communication, bids for proposals, applications, records and more from nearly two dozen business entities or Tallahassee residents.

The circumstances regarding the investigation are unknown.

"It's one of those things where even if you can't find a smoking gun, there seems to be a lot of smoke and so we just don’t know where the flame is, but if there is smoke there's fire. The question is, where is it? Who is it? And that's a really trick thing to find out,” said Samuel Staley, Director of FSU’s DeVoe Moore Center and Applied Policy Research Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Staley has done extensive research into CRAs.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of scrutiny into CRAS. Back in the spring of 2015, a grand jury in Miami-Dade County investigated the CRA there; that investigation did not involve the FBI.

A report was released in February 2016 detailing the group’s findings.

The report found that “millions of dollars in grants have been given to certain businesses, companies or individuals. Some of the grants and awards of monies appear to be clear conflicts of interest for some of the members serving on the CRA board… (And) in addition to giving taxpayer monies to questionable people, CRA boards have implemented questionable practices when deciding to use taxpayer monies for questionable purposes.”

They grand jury made nearly 30 recommendations for the CRA board Miami-Dade County to take. Several read as follows:

• Non-elected lay persons be appointed to serve as full-fledged voting members on CRA board
• The Florida Legislature mandate FRA specific ethics training bi-annually for all CRA board commissioners
• The county commission draft and approve an ordinance that requires each CRA in its annual budget to specifically state how much money it spent in the previous year and how much money it expects to spend in the coming fiscal year on affordable housing

Those recommendations, among others, were intended to prevent CRA abuses and provide better transparency and oversight into CRA projects.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office was unable to provide specific comment on what led to that grand jury investigation. But, a spokesperson for the office said that the grand jury typically picks a topic that they are seeing issues with in the community to investigate.

Staley said that typically an investigation into a CRA comes after a lack of accountability and transparency.

“If we had better systems of transparency and accountability in the system, we would not have the federal subpoenas. I believe that,” said Staley.

“Because even when cities do something that the public doesn’t want, when there is transparency and accountability, they are willing to either go along with it and give the policy a chance, or they go to the ballot box and they elect somebody different into those positions,” he said. “"It's when people don’t trust their local government, because they don't think they're being given all the relevant information, that you get the kind of environment you have now, where people just don't trust what's coming out of the city."

The CRA board in Tallahassee is made up of the entire city commission as well as four members of the county commission. The city commission has been advised to not discuss the investigation.

City Attorney Lew Shelley instructed the commission, "to not speculate... to not gossip if you will, about the investigation or the matters that are being requested.”

Shelley has stated that the City is fully cooperating with the FBI and began gathering the documents that were requested back in June.

The subpoenas listed several notables in the Tallahassee community including Paige Carter-Smith, Executive Director of the Downtown Improvement Authority; Kim Rivers, CEO of Trulieve; JT Burnette, a local developer who has worked on projects including Hotel Duval; and Adam Corey, developer of the City-backed restaurant The Edison and Mayor Andrew Gillum’s former campaign treasurer.

The grand jury will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the US District Courthouse on Adams Street.

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