As local businessman and political “influencer” J.T. Burnette stands trial for federal extortion and racketeering, a spotlight is being shined on the unseemly and allegedly corrupt and illegal way politics has been conducted in Florida’s Capital City for decades.
On Wednesday, former Leon County Commissioner Gary Yordon testified for over five hours, describing his part in a scheme in which former Tallahassee Mayor and Commissioner Scott Maddox set up a backdoor way to funnel money from a company looking to build a hotel in Tallahassee to a lobbying firm controlled by Maddox.
Two years ago, Maddox pled guilty to wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud. Once described by former Vice President Al Gore as a “rising star” in the Demorat party, Maddox was an ambitious politician. He served multiple terms on the City Commission and as mayor, was Chair of the Florida Democratic Parry and was running for the Florida Senate when he was arrested and charged with 44 counts of bribery and fraud, following an intensive FBI investigation. He is currently awaiting sentencing.
McKibbon Hotel Group (MHG) was a client of Governance Services, a lobbying firm once openly owned by Maddox, before Maddox was elected to the City Commission in 2012. Yordon, an employee of Governance, testified how, once Maddox assumed his seat on the commission, he publicly sold the lobbying firm to his partner, Paige Carter-Smith. But privately, Maddox still maintained complete control of the company, according to Yordon.
In 2006, before Maddox was on the Commission, MHG submitted a proposal to the City to build a commercial office building and parking garage on the corner of Monroe and Tennessee Street. After several delays, the market for office space deteriorated. MHG approached the City Commission to build a hotel at the site instead of an office building.
By then Maddox was on the City Commission. Yordan testified Maddox recognized that his involvement with Governance and MHG would draw the attention of an outspoken critic of Tallahassee City Hall, Erwin Jackson.
Jackson, the self-proclaimed “Tallahassee Truth-teller,” has railed against political corruption in Tallahassee since the 1990s. He frequently called out conflicts of interests and filed ethics complaints against those on the City Commission who seemed to stretch the bounds of proper political behavior.
Maddox and Jackson had a particularly adversarial relationship by this time.
Yordon testified that, with the intention of creating a “smaller target for Erwin Jackson to shoot at,” Maddox, Carter-Smith and Yordon decided Yordon would register as a lobbyist under the name of Yordon’s former business, The Zachary Group, and appear to represent MHG before the commission. In fact, Governance would continue to represent MHG.
Under a contract which Yordon testified was drawn up by Maddox, MHG would pay $25,000 up front, and then a $3,000 amonth retainer. Yordon testified that those checks were paid to The Zachary Group but, through an arrangement with the bank, the money went directly to Governance.
MHG was apparently was under the impression that Maddox would be voting on the hotel group’s proposal, even though Yordon testified he told them many times he would not be in on the vote. Maddox’s vote was critical to the passing of the proposal and MHG feared it was “DOA” without his vote, according to evidence admitted at the trial.
Both the government prosecuters and the defense showed video of Jackson speaking before the City Commission, explaining, correctly, how Maddox was still in charge of Governance and that Yordon was acting under the direction of Maddox, through Governance and that the Zachary Group was just a shell to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
At about this same time, according to Yordon, Burnette’s company filed a “quasi-judicial petition” against the MHG project, effectively stopping the project dead in its tracts. Burnette had purchased the nearby DoubleTree hotel and reportedly wanted the MHG project stopped to cut out competition.
During his testimony, Yordon said that Burnette’s lawsuit forced the project to stop progress.
The federal government is arguing that Burnette bribed Maddox to kill the MHG project.
On the first day of the trial Melissa Oglesby, former owner of KaiserKane, testified her cousin and mentor, Burnette, frequently received loans through her company, sometimes for millions of dollars. Some of these loans were repaid. Some were not. Oglesby testified Burnette also had her pay a $100,000 invoice from Governance for what he told her was for Maddox’s help with DoubleTree.
During the first vote on MHG, Maddox walked out of the City Commission chambers and then recused himself from all the votes on the project, drawing the ire of MHG, and eventually costing the company the approval of the hotel project, according to Yordon’s testimony and reports by Tallahassee Reports at the time.
Burnette’s attorney’s, in cross examination of those testifying, attempted to paint the KaiserKane loans as common practices for a “family business” and tried to show there were many other problems with the MHG project that led to its defeat.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. It is widely believed Maddox and Carter-Smith will testify.