New indictment alleges conspiracy against former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson

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LYNN HAVEN — A federal grand jury has handed down a new indictment against former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and businessman James Finch that charges them with conspiring together to commit crimes as far back as 2015 and as recently as Nov. 16.

The superseding indictment charges Anderson with 21 law violations and Finch with 15. Count one states the two conspired together and with others "to defraud and deprive the city of Lynn Haven and its citizens of their right to the honest services of Anderson and (former commissioner and co-defendant Antonius) Barnes through bribery or kickbacks."

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It states that Barnes, who had previously entered a guilty plea, and Anderson accepted things of value from Finch in return for their performing official acts.

The indictment documents 10 trips Anderson took aboard Finch's private jet between Dec. 25, 2015, and March 26, 2019. Anderson traveled to either Key West or Biloxi, Mississippi, and in Biloxi, Finch covered the costs of rooms, dining and casino entertainment, it said.

Finch also gave Anderson and her husband a motor home worth more than $100,000 and has helped pay her legal fees since charges were filed, the indictment said.

Finch bribed Barnes, the indictment alleges, with six cash "loans" totaling $37,000. It quotes Finch telling former Lynn Haven City Manager Michael White that "Antonius Barnes would dance for me if I wanted him to."

In return for the items of value, the indictment states, Anderson and Barnes voted in favor of selling Finch land he would later profit from when the then-mayor directed city staff to use the property for the disposal of hurricane debris.

Anderson and Barnes worked on behalf of Finch with their votes, by signing resolutions, contract agreements and promissory notes and pressuring and advising fellow city officials to perform specific official acts favorable to Finch's business interests, it said.

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Finch made millions of dollars off of various road projects and, in 2017, the indictment states, Anderson signed an agreement that designated his company, Phoenix Construction, as the sole contractor or vendor for all infrastructure improvement projects conducted in Lynn Haven under a half-cent tax passed to pay for such projects.

"This contract, negotiated by Anderson and Finch, made Phoenix Construction the contractor for numerous multi-million dollar projects that would not require any further bid procedures," the indictment states.

After the authorization was granted, the indictment said, "Finch often proceeded with projects ... without receiving the city's authorization to proceed."

The new indictment is the second in which the federal government has tested a conspiracy theory in its case against Anderson and Finch. In August, U.S. District Court judge Mark Walker threw out a less focused conspiracy charge.

Walker wrote in his August ruling that while he saw clear intent to conspire in three of five "projects" he looked at to determine whether conspiracy allegations held up, in two others he did not, and due to that he could find no alternative but to toss the entire charge.

Dismissal of such a charge, Walker said, should not be employed when a less drastic ruling will suffice, "but, in this case a less drastic ruling will not suffice."

"It is simply not possible to disentangle the allegations," Walker said.

Finch's team of attorneys already has attacked the second conspiracy charge.

"The second superseding Indictment is, once more, a strained attempt to transform unrelated conspiracy allegations into a single, overarching 'honest services' conspiracy," a motion to dismiss, filed Thursday, said. "The allegations, which are incorporated into all 26 counts of the second superseding Indictment, again, describe a series of distinct schemes that properly at best may be charged only as multiple conspiracies in separate indictments."

The new indictment states that Finch, along with a relative of his and Anderson's husband, played an integral role in the hiring of Michael White as city manager. Questions directed to White, it said, included asking whether he would be a "friend" to city contractors.

White, who was hired in July 2017, also has been indicted by federal authorities and has pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the theft of FEMA funds following Hurricane Michael. He was charged along with four others, including former Lynn Haven Community Services Director David Horton and David White, the owner of a company called Erosion Control Specialist.

Likely due to the new indictment being filed, the sentencing of Michael White, David White, Horton, Josh Anderson and Shannon Rodriguez has been pushed back from Dec. 16 to March 17. It is the seventh continuance of the sentencing hearing and was granted Nov. 24 at the request of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Yet another city official caught up in the sweeping Lynn Haven corruption scandal, former City Attorney Adam Albritton, also had his sentencing date pushed back. Albritton will be sentenced on Jan. 12, according to court documents. That continuance also was granted Nov. 24.

Barnes remains scheduled for sentencing Jan. 7.

Counts two through 14 of the federal indictment filed Nov. 16 specify transactions in which Finch is alleged to have committed wire fraud. Anderson is named alongside him in all but three of the wire fraud counts. Most stem from the deposit of checks Phoenix Construction received from the city, but also included are various messages to Michael White directing him to take an action that would directly benefit Finch's interests.

Count 15 charges Anderson with corruptly accepting the gift of a motorhome from Finch knowing that she was doing so in exchange for actions she had or would take as a city official on his behalf. Count 16 charges Finch with providing the motorhome to Anderson knowing that in doing so she would act in his behalf.

In count 17, Anderson is charged with illegally accepting a benefit by employing the services of a company the city had contracted with for hurricane debris removal to clean her yard, her mother's yard and the yard of a neighbor.

Anderson is charged in counts 18 and 19 with wire fraud through communication of her intention to have work at her home done by the city contracted business.

Counts 20 through 24 charge Anderson with wire fraud based on her communications regarding "pro bono" insurance coverage she received from a company, WorldClaim, based on her entering into a contract with the company on behalf of the city.

Count 25 alleges Anderson lied to federal agents when she told them she had no knowledge what role ECS, David White's company, had played in the cleanup of hurricane debris following Hurricane Michael. She knew at least enough to have employed ECS to clean her yard after the storm, the indictment states.

The final count of the indictment charges Finch with lying to the FBI when he told them he had sold the motorhome mentioned often in the indictment to Anderson when he was fully aware that he had provided the vehicle at no charge.

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There is an indication in the body of the indictment that it might have been Michael White's arrest on a battery charge while he was city manager that initiated the unraveling of the scandal that has now led to the arrests of 10 people either by federal or Bay County authorities.

After White was arrested on March 17, 2019, the indictment said, the Bay County Sheriff's Office found evidence on his cellphone of his dealings with David White and ECS. Anderson also went to the Sheriff's Office, the indictment said, and asked them to investigate Michael White's dealings with ECS, without revealing that ECS had done work on her private property after Hurricane Michael.

It also details alleged efforts by Finch, with assistance from Anderson, to strongarm Vickie Gainer, the city manager who followed White into the job, and the city's police chief into supporting Finch's April 2020 push to secure a contract for a $13 million rebuild of the Lynn Haven municipal building.

Gainer, according to the document, held out against Finch's efforts, insisting that the project be bid out so as not to violate state law. She did this, the indictment states, despite threats made by Finch and promises from Anderson that her salary and that of the police chief would be increased, the indictment said.

"On or about Aug. 14, 2020, Finch sent a letter to the city manager withdrawing his offer to build a new police department," the indictment said.

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson gets new indictment from feds