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Corruption in City Hall: JT Burnette Trial Day 4

Posted at 1:45 PM, Jul 15, 2021

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — The first witness on the stand was Charles Simon, who worked for IVC WHH Tallahassee LLC, AKA DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tallahassee.

Simon is the hotel asset manager involved in the sale of the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel to Jt Burnette. There were negotiations with JT Burnette and Simon along the way.

A contract was drawn for IB Tallahassee LLC, Burnette's company, to purchase the 243-room hotel in 2014 from IVC WHH Tallahassee LLC.

IB Tallahassee LLC changed its name from DT Tallahassee in order to purchase the hotel because Hilton did not want the DT name being used.

The sale of the hotel began at $24 million, the amount Simon said he wanted. A contract terminated on February 11, 2014, $22.1 million was the offer, with the final closing price at $21 million in April 2014.

The final contract was signed by Michael O'Brien, the vice president of IVC and Burnette for IB Tallahassee.

Simon showed text messages between himself and Burnette to the court. There was no contact between the two from Feb 11 to March 11, but negotiations did take place.

"He first wanted a $3 million reduction," Simon said. "So I'd say it worked."

The project was killed by the city council.

"Not a direct heart shot but they are hurting," Burnette said in a text to Simon after he told Burnette the project was killed. Simon said he found out through his GM.

"Working on it and I assure you Hampton can be back alive in two phone calls," Burnette texted.

Simon said he didn't take Burnette seriously and replied, "Come on JT."

During cross-examination, Simon was asked if he looked at Burnette's status in the community as a reason to do the deal.

"I try to take a buyer seriously based off how they present themselves," Simon answered. "They don't have to be an institutional buyer for me to take them seriously."

Simon added that Burnette's status in the community gave him "credibility in my book."

When asked by Burnette wanted to buy the Hilton, Simon said Burnette wanted to make it the "IT" spot in Tallahassee, "the place where everyone wants to go."

Simon said Burnette wanted to lower the price and Simon wanted to hold off on signing the contract by the end of the year, communicated in emails.

"My preference was to get paid what I wanted to get paid ($24 million)," Simon said. "I thought that was going to be better at the end of the year."

Simon said he believed Burnette was using negotiating tactics to pressure him to speed up the process, ultimately lowering the price. He said Burnettes pressured him by talking about how much money he had spent during the process, using the Hamptons deal and about how serious they were for the Hilton purchase.

Simon said Burnette texted him that there was over $3 million in issues with the property's condition.

Star witness Paige Carter-Smith testified for two things: her relationship with KaiserKane, a company she believes is controlled Burnette, and with Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee city commissioner.

Burnette is accused of giving Maddox a $100,000 bribe in exchange for him abstaining on a vote, while on the city council.

This vote was related to the McKibbon downtown Hampton Hotel project, which was a competing hotel project to the one Burnette was in negotiations to buy.

Carter-Smith testified, "Mr.Maddox told me that JT did not want him to vote."

She added Maddox also told her he was going to recuse himself from the vote because it was a former client of his.

The McKibbon project did not pass on at the commission meeting on February 12, 2014.

She told jurors in 2013, KaiserKane sent her consulting firm $100,000 after Maddox instructed her to invoice the company for that amount.

“After questioning him on why the $100,000, he said he was going to conflict himself out on voting for the McKibbon project for the City Commission,” Carter-Smith testified.

The prosecution showed a $100,000 check received by Carter-Smith's company Governance from KaiserKane on April 14, 2014.

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY ONE

JT BURNETTE TRIAL: DAY TWO

JT BURNETT TRIAL: DAY THREE

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.