TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — After two full days under direct examination, JT Burnette returned to the witness stand for a third time to shield questions from the prosecutor, Peter Nothstein.
Burnette is accused of paying former city commissioner Scott Maddox and his business partner Paige Cater-Smith $100,000 to ensure Maddox ruined plans on the commission for a rival hotel.
The government claims that years later Burnette helped Maddox and Carter-Smith bribe four $10,000 checks from undercover FBI agents.
Cross-examination began with crafting a communication timeline.
Looking at phone records, the prosecution compared key dates involving Burnette's purchase of the DoubleTree hotel and movement with the McKibbon Hotel Group to call between Maddox and Burnette.
One key phone call focused on came February 11, just one day before the vote to determine the fate of the MHG Hampton Inn.
When asked about a non-compete in the purchase agreement for Hotel Duval, Burnette said he and his lawyer "sat around every day wondering if a non-compete would pop up."
An email from Charles Simon dated July 22, 2013, discusses inking out a letter of intent for the DoubleTree before Hotel Duval closed.
The inspection period ended on Aug. 2, 2013, for new buyers of Hotel Duval, obligating Burnette to complete the sale if a problem wasn't found.
It was around this time he learned about MHGs plans to build a hotel.
"I don't want to say that I heard somewhere that they were changing the use, but I don't know when or where," Burnette testified.
Burnette was working closely with Maddox on Imagine Tallahassee during January, February and July 2013. He said there was one text/call between them in March and April. On July 2, he had a 33-minute call with Maddox, three weeks before an email to Simon about buying Hotel Duval.
On Aug. 6, 2013, Burnette's business partner, Chad Kitrell sent an email to Charles Gardner with the subject line, "Hampton Inn." Burnette said this was the first time he knew there was a legal standing to do something about Hampton Inn.
Burnette referred to Hampton Inn as a "checkmate."
On Aug. 21, 2013, a revised letter of intent was sent to Charles Simon.
"This is the first time Simon has said this is an issue about the DoubleTree," said Burnette.
In late August, there was an email and several very short phone calls between Maddox and Burnette.
- 9/3/13: Email updates to Hampton Inn from Simon
- 9/5/13: Three calls between Maddox and Burnette, none lasts more than 5 minutes
- 9/17/13: Email from lawyer David Theriaque titled "DoubleTree FILING DEADLINE IS TOMORROW - what Burnettte referred to as "checkmate"
- 9/17/13: Email from Charles Simon submitting L01 with the latest terms
- 9/18/13: Burnette emails asking for an update on the DoubleTree sale. Simon responded, "getting closer"
- 9/18/13: Kim Rivers emails Theriaque that DoubleTree is closed; Burnette says the email was sent within minutes
- 9/18/13: Three calls between Burnette and Maddox, none lasting longer than 1 minute 39 seconds
- 9/19/13: Lawsuit filed
- 9/20/13: Seven calls between Burnette and Maddox, longest one being 2 minutes 37 seconds
- 10/9/13: A text message was sent between Maddox and Burnette
- 2/5/14: Simon texts Burnette about the MHG vote at the Commission meeting. Burnette said he found out late that afternoon it was an "unplanned agenda item."
- 2/6/14: Text sent stating, "We need to get a go or no go vote by tomorrow."
- 2/7/14: Burnette calls Maddox, 5-second phone call
- 2/11/13: The day before the Hampton vote. Just before noon, Barry Lapidas send buyer's notice of termination. Thirty minutes later Burnette emails Lapidas and Marc Schuster, the lead lawyer, saying he needs the $25 million deal signed by "close of business that day!!!" (The prosecution called out the use of three exclamation marks in the text) The deal was not closed by end of business
- 2/11/13: At 5 p.m., Burnette texted Simon asking where they are in the deal. Simon said he was waiting on "big dogs." Burnette said Imagine Tallahassee was on the same day and equally, if not more, important.
- 2/11/13: 16-minute call between Burnette and Maddox. Burnette said Carter-Smith asked if he wanted representation on Hampton.
"I thought she was basically saying she would work on Gil," Burnette testified. "I just need someone not screwing up what I've already did."
"There was nothing for her to represent you on," the prosecutor asked.
"It was a defensive blocking play," Burnette answered.
Gary Yordon was representing MHG at that time. Carter-Smith was also in talks with Wes Townson.
"I didn't want her to lobby for them," said Burnette. "I just didn't want her to lobby."
Burnette said Carter-Smith sounded scared on the phone, her voice was cracking, when he asked her how much and she said "$100 grand."
"I was in a situation," Burnette said. He told the court his heart was racing at the time.
THE DAY BEFORE THE VOTE ON HAMPTON
"A city commissioner was calling you," the prosecutor said. "He was threatening you?"
"Paige was broke, I was worried," Burnette said.
Burnette said he was afraid of retaliation from Maddox.
"He would say you would never know it, but you would feel it," said Burnette.
"Did Scott Maddox extort you," asked the prosecutor.
"I would call it more of a strong-arm than an extortion," Burnette answered. "He's never threatened me before, but I don't want to get on his bad side."
Burnette said he felt if he paid Maddox, Maddox wouldn't kill any of his projects. He said he didn't use lobbying help but agreed to extend KK a contract for $100,000.
"The city and county managers become like gods," said Burnette.
There were multiple unanswered calls that day, mostly Brunette calling Maddox.
Bookkeeping and email records from KaiserKane, the company owned by Burnette's cousin Melissa Oglesby, show he used the company's money to pay the $100,00o to Carter-Smith and Maddox.
KaiserKane invoices name the money transfer "for the DoubleTree."
The prosecution also questioned Burnette about never formally amending the KaiserKane contract to reflect the extra $100,000 payment and extension.
"I don't have a written agreement with you if it's a year or less," Burnette said of contracts in court. "I can do a verbal agreement."
At times the conversation in the courtroom turned tense.
"You crafted this story that wanted to hang your hat on a strong-arm deal from this 16-minute Feb. 11 phone call," Nothstein said. "You went to Maddox and offered him a bribe."
"That's a creative imagination," Burnette responded. "You are completely incorrect."
Referring to the timeline, the prosecution pointed out a Governance invoice for $100,000 was sent to KaiserKane on Feb. 26, 2014. One day later, Maddox officially filed to recuse himself despite the city attorney saying it wasn't necessary.
In an August 2014 email, Oglesby emailed her accounting team to let them know Burnette authorized two payments to Maddox and Carter-Smith "a while back."
She said one check was for GSA wok, although Governance never secured a project for them. Oglesby described the $100,000 payment as "something to do with DoubleTree."
FOUR $10,000 BRIBES
Throughout his testimony, Burnette has maintained undercover agent Mike Sweets was clearly interested in bribing someone.
"I didn't believe you could bribe someone, so I thought it didn't matter if I called the law," Burnette responded when asked why he didn't try to stop Sweets.
A recording from the September 2016 trip was Nashville was played, wherein Burnette says, "lobbyists can get access bu they can't get s--t done."
For 14 minutes the conversation focused mostly on business. Nothstein says Burnette dropped Maddox's name both times he came up and that Miller never mentioned bribery or doing things illegally.
"I guess my testimony was unclear," Burnette said. "I had spent a year with these guys and I knew what they wanted. I believed I would be able to stop something like that."
He said he didn't want to come between Miller and Sweets' business deal.
"You explain to him and the other undercovers that some of the politicians are not for sale," Nothstein says, referencing Monday when Burnette testified he was willing to sell anyway/anyone to Butler and Sweets.
"What you're saying is that if you want Maddox to get you $3 million in Blueprint, you need to give $10,000 a month for three years," asked Nothstein.
"I'm trying to hype him up on some hypothetical scenario to answer Mike Miller's 10 percent question," Burnette answered.
"The answer to my question is, 'no,' you were not trying to get them to bribe Maddox in this particular passage," said Nothstein.
"No," Burnette said.
"Mike Sweets says to you, 'Is there a politician who says, 'where's my piece of the pie,'' and you answer, 'Scott Maddox is that guy,'" asked Nothstein.
"Yes," said Burnette.
- 4/3/14: Closing statements on hotel received
- 4/3/14: Email from CM to Burnette to MO saying Burnette wanted another $1 million from Kaiser Kane to Whiteley contracting for the DoubleTree
- Burnette says the money is returned as soon as closing is settled
- 4/11/14: MW to CM gives details on three wires: first wire won't be repaid until DoubleTree makes money; second paid back; the third wire would be returned shortly after closing but hasn't returned
"You're saying in the context of a million-dollar loan, 'shortly' means six months," the prosecution asked.
"Yes," Burnette responded.
- 4/14/14: Marsha Folmar, who worked for Burnette, emailed MW asking to pay Governance per Burnette's instructions, saying to code it as professional costs.
- Still no document about a new contract
- 4/24/14: MW send a list of wires again
- $3,268 million outstanding, $2.2 million repaid
- says he felt Oglesby was only "pissed" about money going to Frank Whitely
- Oglesby responds to MW, "we're getting raped."
- Burnette was not a KaisrKane employee but was doing mentor/protege program from his wife's SBA business
- Oglesby was the only name listed on the Board of Directors
- Under the SBA, the minority/woman has to make the ultimate business and financial decisions
- There was no written contract laying out Burnettee's agreement with KaisreKane
- Money paid to Governance came out of Burnette's share
- 70% of cost distribution to Burnette and FW
- 30% Melissa Oglesby
Corruption at city hall, it's the scandal the FBI released on 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.