The jury in the month-long J.T. Burnette federal corruption trial in Tallahassee found the defendant guilty Friday afternoon of five charges, including extortion, and not guilty of four of the charges, including racketeering conspiracy. He will be sentenced on October 28.
In every trial, the veracity of the witnesses is very important. In this case, jurors had to decide if the things witnesses said in private conversations, often secretly recorded by undercover FBI agents, was the truth, or if the truth was what those same witnesses testified to in court under the bright public spotlight of the trial.
In the end, the jury’s decision was divided.
Burnette, owner of the DoubleTree Hotel and several other companies, was accused of arranging bribes for former Tallahassee City Commissioner, mayor and Florida Democrat Party Chair Scott Maddox.
Maddox and partner, Paige Carter-Smith, were indicted in 2018 for accepting bribes from city vendors in exchange for his official action. They were charged with 44 counts of bribery and fraud, in which it was alleged Maddox funneled the bribes through Governance Services, a lobbying and consulting firm, founded by Maddox and later sold to Carter-Smith. Maddox and Carter-Smith pled guilty to wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud and will be sentenced on September 9.
Burnette was indicted in 2019 on racketeering, extortion and lying to federal agents. He is accused of giving Maddox a $100,000 bribe in exchange for his recusal on a vote involving a competing downtown hotel project, McKibbon Hotel Group, and arranging $40,000 in bribes to Maddox from a bogus FBI company, Southern Pines.
The jury determined on Count 1, Racketeering Conspiracy, Burnette was not guilty. This charge alleged Burnette, along with Maddox and Carter-Smith, committed at least two acts of bribery or extortion between December 2013 and May 8, 2019, namely with a hotel vote abstention and with the FBI’s fictitious company, Southern Pines.
On Count 2, Extortion Under Color of Official Right, he was found guilty of obtaining property (money) not due to Maddox from Southern Pines.
On Counts 3-6 Honest Service Mail Fraud, Burnette was found not guilty of Count 3 and 4, but guilty of Counts 5 and 6. Theses counts alleged Burnette, along with Maddox and Carter-Smith, devised a scheme to defraud the City of Tallahassee and its citizens the right to the honest services of Maddox, through bribery, by having four $10,000 checks sent by mail. Evidently, the first two checks were not found to be fraud but the second two were.
Counts 7 and 8 alleged Burnette used cell phones to facilitate bribery on October 19 and 24, in violation of the Travel Act. In the October 19 call with an undercover FBI agent, Burnette allegedly agreed that Southern Pines Development should send $10,000 checks to Maddox, however Burnette was not in the Northern District of Florida at the time, which may explain the not guilty determination in that charge. However, on the count attached to the October 24 call, Burnette was found guilty. In that count, Burnett allegedly told one of the FBI agents to send the checks to Maddox’s lobbying firm, Governance.
On Count 9, False Statements, Burnette was found guilty of lying to FBI agents on May 24, 2017 when answering questions regarding Carter-Smith, Maddox, and their involvement with the undercover FBI agents.