TALLAASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Extortion. Bribery. Bank fraud. All big crimes that the FBI says were happening right inside Tallahassee's City Hall. On Monday, the details of that investigation were brought to light for a federal jury.
Jurors heard opening statements Monday afternoon. The prosecution painted the picture of three people after money and power. The defense for Tallahassee businessman JT Burnette, saying the undercover operation was nothing more than a forced narrative to pin his client.
"This is a case about corruption in the city of Tallahassee between 2012 and 2017. this is about public trust," federal prosecutor Stephen Kunz said in his opening.
Burnette is accused of working alongside former city commissioner Scott Maddox and his business partner Paige Carter-Smith to extort and bribe businesses. In return, Maddox would use his role on the city commission in favor of that business.
The prosecution laid out three elements to their argument:
- A $100k deal Burnette inked with Maddox,
- promising Maddox would abstain from voting for a potential hotel just blocks from Burnette's downtown hotel,
- Burnette's alleged help in facilitating $40,000 in extortion from undercover agents, and giving the FBI false statements.
"This is an eye-opening case for the taxpayers of Leon County. This case will be the precedence to setting us on the path to correcting other issues," said Stanley Sims.
Stanley Sims sat in the courtroom, listening to those opening statements. He says there's now a glimmer of hope.
"Is the process fast enough? No. We need to do something about expediting bringing these types of elected officials who violate the public's trust," he said.
Defense attorneys argue that JT Burnette isn't a key player in corruption.
Tim Jansen used his opening statements, equating the undercover operation to a movie. Using those same undercover recordings to make the case that Burnette wasn't the link between those FBI agents and Maddox. He says this trial is a case of "government overreach"
Jury selection took nearly four hours. Ultimately 10 women and four men were sat.
Corruption at city hall, it's the scandal the FBI released in February 5 of 2018.
That's when Scott Maddox, who was serving as a Tallahassee City Commissioner and Paige Carter-Smith, who was serving as the Downtown Improvement Authority Director, was named in search warrant affidavits.
Those documents say through a consulting company named Governance, they were paid to vote in favor of various groups lobbying to move into Tallahassee.
Maddox called the claims untrue a week later.
In December of that year, federal prosecutors found enough to charge him with 44 counts including bribery, extortion, bank fraud, and racketeering.
Just one day later, Former Governor Rick Scott suspended Maddox. Carter Smith stepped down from her role as well.
Not done with the players at hand, prosecutors indicted Tallahassee businessman J.T. Burnette on May 9, 2019.
In August of that year, Maddox and Carter Smith entered guilty pleas. The plea agreement only dealt with three charges: two for extortion and one for tax fraud. Thirty-nine of the charges were dropped because of that plea deal.
That same day, the US Attorney's Office launched a new statewide division made up of the US Attorney's Office, FBI agents, the IRS, and the Department of Justice to crack down on any form of corruption in government.
After three delays, JT Burnette is now on trial.