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Corruption in City Hall: Trial Day 10 - JT Burnette takes the stand

Posted at 11:00 AM, Jul 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-27 18:14:26-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — On the tenth day of JT Burnette's trial began, Burnette took the stand.

The superseding indictment alleges that, in early 2014, Burnette caused a company to pay $110,000 in exchange for Maddox declaring a conflict and not voting at a Tallahassee City Commission meeting. At that meeting, the Commission was slated to vote on an extension sought by a hotel development group to allow more time to meet certain City requirements to build a hotel close to a downtown hotel owned by Burnette. Maddox’s failure to participate resulted in a 2-2 tie vote by the Commission that denied the hotel development group the extension it sought and ended its project.

The maximum terms of imprisonment for the offenses are as follows:

• 20 years: Racketeering Conspiracy, Extortion, and Honest Services Fraud• 5 years: Use of Interstate Facilities in Furtherance of Bribery, Making False Statements to a Federal Officer

Burnette began by talking about losing his mother, who had a drug addiction, at a young age and living with an alcoholic grandmother.

He said he started his first business at 17-years-old. Burnette said he got a roofing license at 18 and helped with repairs after a storm in Panama City.

He attended Tallahassee Community College for two years before leaving to do business, beginning with a federal contract.

"About 10 percent of what I've done is in Tallahassee," Burnette told the court. "Most of those are passion projects."

He said a family member once told him, "Rich people eat at Olive Garden and Stay at the Radisson." Burnette later renovated the Radisson hotel to Hotel Duval.

"I was always an IT nerd," said Burnette. "I loved it. I always believed people should order with their phone. We developed the first mobile ordering and brought in a billion dollars for Papa Johns in the first year."

Burnette said he created the company from which the Florida Fish and Wildlife license is from.

"That one feature," Burnette said about auto-renew, "we ended up getting four out of five states."

He told the court he made money around the country and invested it to create "special places" in Tallahassee.

"I'm a starter, not a finisher," said Burnette. "What I believe in life is everyone has a superpower. We're all given 100 percent, but it's about how you divide it up."

He said his superpowers are math, science, english and speaking.

Burnette testified Melissa Oglesby and Frank Whitely had different skills and couldn't get along.

He said he would do things and let people think someone else did it to main order, specifically with Oglesby and Whitely.

"I struggled with marriage because my father was married five times, twice to my mother," said Burnette. "I had the philosophy my dad had used up all the marriage licenses doles out to my family."

Burnette said he opened his business, Shelton Dean, with a girlfriend of eight years and that he was a mentor-protege for Oglesby and KaiserKane.

That business helped Oglesby secure the SBA minority loan. He said he also worked with FSU boosters to help develop College Town.

Judge Robert Hinkle told Burnette to answer the questions he's asked because he keeps explaining and giving side stories.

"I probably spent 40-50 percent of my time working for KaiserKane," Burnette said.

He said he was focused on helping his wife with Trulieve and medical marijuana when he met Mike Miller.

"We would spend 20 minutes talking about all the projects in town I've done," said Burnette.

Burnette testified he met with elected officials a lot to develop the vision for the part of town he focused on at the time.

He told the court that being local meant more time with local officials, and the 18-hour downtown goal when he built the drugstore Walgreens downtown, the Gateway Project.

MEETING SCOTT MADDOX

Burnette told the court he met Maddox before 2008.

Burnette was part of a group of people concerned about "sky-high" fuel prices, $2 in Quincy and Tallahassee. They wanted to build another gas station to add competition.

The Phipps family created restrictions saying five acres were needed to build FBO.

"It was like spraying a hornet's nest," said Burnette. "They put up a fight."

Maddox was brought in as their lobbyist.

"Scott was able to get us a 3-2 vote approval at City Commission," Burnette said.

In 2015, at a Clearwater property, a cigarette lit a palm tree on fire. Burnette said Maddox came on as a consultant to get the building official to make a determination on damage to get more money from the insurance company. Maddox was successful and they received $5,000.

Burnette said Maddox called him often to ask business questions. He said he never went to Maddox's house and their first trip was the Las Vegas trip.

"It was a business relationship," he said.

During testimony, Burnette said that tenants started complaining to him that Maddox and Paige Carter-Smith were cheating.

Burnette said Maddox always referred to himself as Carter-Smith's lawyer, was the largest shareholder on Pro-Bank, and sat on the board.

According to Burnette, Carter-Smith applied for a loan while Maddox was on the board. He asked to be on Maddox's finance committee for the 2012 campaign.

Burnette said Maddox asked him to give Carter-Smith an $800,000 loan for an office building.

Burnette testified that Maddox told him he has clients he has talked to the City Attorney about that include McKibbon Hotel Group, WastePro and Williams Communication.

MCKIBBON HOTEL GROUP

In 2008, according to Burnette, MHG wanted Aloft on a corner spot, but the City wanted a signature building, so Aloft was pushed to Monroe.

Burnette said he felt Hyatt Place was a better fit, so Maddox encouraged him to reach out to MHG on renovating Hotel Duval because it was small and he wanted a supplemental hotel nearby.

"At this point," said Burnette, "Hyatt had a grander name than Aloft. Tennessee and Monroe is the North-South, East-West intersection for the City. They were serious about what they wanted to go right there."

He met with Maddox on August 28, 2008, about Carter-Smith needing a loan and Maddox assured his clients he still had $500,000 to loan her.

"Paige's finances were a trainwreck and Scott wasn't overly happy that I loaned her $500k instead of $800k," Burnette said.

Imagine Tallahassee held money set aside for economic development; penny tax with Blueprint funding for infrastructure needs.

"We needed to go to the broader community and figure out what we needed," said Burnette.

More than 5,000 provided input into Imagine Tallahassee.

Hotel Duval was purchased in 2006-07 and opened in 2009. A DoubleTree investor sent a letter of intent to sell to Burnette in July 2013. He said that day it felt like a low probability that DoubleTree would sell the hotel.

Burnette said he initially supported a Hampton Inn from MHG because it would bring people to Shulas and Level 8. He was mad when MHG didn't want to include the City's desires because he had to when he built Walgreens across the street.

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY ONE

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY TWO

JT BURNETT TRIAL: DAY THREE

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY FOUR

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY FIVE

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY SIX

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY SEVEN

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY EIGHT

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY NINE

BACKGROUND
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.