By Karen Murphy, The Capitolist.
This week’s witnesses in the federal trial of J.T. Burnette, a Tallahassee businessman standing trial for federal extortion and racketeering, described the “dirty politics of getting things done” in Tallahassee. The testimony exposed some of the true “power behind the throne” like that whielded by Burnette and his wife, Kim Rivers, CEO of the mega medical marijuana company, Trulieve, and by a former “rising star” in Florida Democratic politics, Scott Maddox.
Burnette is facing federal charges of racketeering, and extortion stemming from a multi-year FBI investigation into political corruption in Tallahassee. Government prosecutors are trying to prove Burnette arranged bribes for Maddox, through Governance Services, LLC, a lobbying firm owned by Maddox’s close friend and business partner Paige Carter-Smith.
Maddox and Carter-Smith pleaded guilty in 2019 to three out of the 44 crimes they were charged with following the FBI probe. They agreed to testify against Burnette in hopes the government would recommend a lighter sentence in their cases.
One of the three FBI undercover agents who conducted the investigation, “Mike Miller,” testified for six or so hours on Tuesday and Wednesday for the Government and then underwent a full day and a half of cross examination by the defense.
During his testimony, video and audio was shown to the court of the defendant, Burnette, attending a meeting in a Nashville, Tennessee hotel suite with undercover FBI agents. Burnette, in shorts and a baseball cap, is sitting next to Miller. Also at the meeting, but off-screen, were the two other undercover agents, “Mike Sweets” and “Brian Butler.”
At the time, Burnette believed the agents were businessmen wanting to develop real estate in Tallahassee.
According to testimony by Miller, the meeting was to learn if politicians could be bought in Tallahassee and, if so, who and how.
Burnette told the agents that City Commissioner Scott Maddox — a former Tallahassee mayor, former Florida Democrat Party CEO and former candidate for Florida senate and governor — controlled the Tallahassee City Commission.
Burnette explained, “Scott Maddox is, you know, arguably, probably the most sophisticated politician of all the city and county players period. Okay? So, Scott and I have always worked deals together because at the end of the day, Scott can always wrangle the commission kind of in his direction.”
Burnette told the agents when Maddox was mayor, he hired Anita Favors as City Manager. She was beholden to him, and she would sway the commissioners to do what Maddox wanted. Burnette said Maddox did the same thing when he got Rick Fernandez hired to replace Favors in 2015. He told the agents that Maddox made a “strategic move” to get Fernandez so he would be loyal to Maddox even if he went off the commission.
Burnette said he was the biggest contributor to Maddox’s political campaigns, as he was for then-mayor and later gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and all the other city commissioners.
He said then-commissioners Nancy Miller and Gil Ziffer couldn’t be bought but they could be influenced, both by Maddox and Burnette’s then-girlfriend, now wife Kim Rivers. He described Rivers as a real political player and said she could be very “revengeful.”
He said Miller always checked her position on something coming up for a vote with Rivers first. “She (Rivers) will run someone against you. Commissioners don’t want Kim to come against them. She is the perfect weapon when she is aimed against you.”
Burnette said he gave Rivers the money she used for political contributions. He said he “buys the gun and Kim pulls the trigger.”
He said the political consultant Drew Jones of VancoreJones Communication runs the political campaigns of nearly all the commissioners and when Rivers was unhappy with someone Jones would “run someone else if Kim wants.” Burnette said that, at that time, Rivers medical marijuana company, Trulieve, paid VancoreJones $15,000 per month in a retainer fee.
Burnette told the agents Miller and Ziffer “aren’t for sale, but Scott can be bought.”
“Ain’t nothing happening for less than $25,000. You can buy anything for $100,000. You know who you have to pay. Scott is the guy. He wants his piece of the pie.”
Burnette said campaigns in Tallahassee can be bought for around $25,000 and “I have a lot of political capitol. I’m ready to be monetized.” He reiterated several times he wanted to monetize his political capitol.
During the trial, which began on July 13, government prosecutors are trying to prove Burnette helped arrange for bribes to be sent to Governance from Southern Pines Development, an FBI front, in exchange for Maddox’s help with its fictitious real estate deals. In these deals, they supposedly planned to spend $40 million or more developing projects in Tallahassee. The bribes, four $10,000 checks, were to be funneled through Governance to Maddox.
Miller showed receipts for each of the checks being mailed to Governance and said that he was told the checks were cashed by Governance.
According to Miller’s testimony, the agents asked Burnette if money to Governance went to Maddox.
He responded, “It’s definitely for Maddox. There’s nobody else in Governance other than Paige, which is Maddox effectively, indirectly. It’s money well spent if you’re gonna do a deal here.”
Defense attorney Tim Jansen, in cross examination of Miller, tried to show Burnette had been led into this discussion at the Nashville meeting out of fear that if Burnette didn’t say something about how to bribe a Tallahassee politician, the businessmen would take their potential $42 million investment elsewhere.
Miller told jurors that the agents wanted “to hear what the inside track is.”
Jansen countered, basically yelling at the witness, “Because if you don’t get the inside track, your $40 million isn’t coming to Tallahassee. That’s what you’re telling Burnette.”
Miller responded that the agents were trying to find out during the conversation who in Tallahasssee could be bribed.
“When you’re in that meeting, you’re pushing him to say he can bribe somebody?” Jansen asked Miller.
“My job is to ask questions to see if there’s something there,” Miller said, calmly.
Miller testified Sweets reported to him that Maddox and Burnette had discussed how to get payments to Maddox. Miller said the agents were trying to determine whether they should mail checks or use cash.
During a recorded phone call between Miller and Burnette, Miller mentioned the “whole deal” that Sweets worked out with Maddox and asked about getting payment to Maddox.
“The only thing I was going to ask you was … (Sweets) told me it was going to Governance, right?” Miller asked.
“Yeah,” Burnette said. “We’ll discuss that a little more when you guys get to town. I will tell you that’s a good plan to start.”
Carter-Smith and Maddox also told Miller how to send money on another audio tape played during the trial.
Carter-Smith met Sweets and Butler while with Maddox at a Florida State football game.
Referring to Maddox, she told Sweets, “He’s a rainmaker. He’s the talent.”
Maddox scoffed, “I’m the (expletive) talent.”
On the audio, Sweets asks Maddox where to send the check and Maddox responds, “To Governance.”
Carter-Smith replies, “yes.”
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Karen Murphy is the Capital Reporter for The Capitolist. She is an award-winning journalist who covers the North Florida and South Georgia Area.