Judge denies request to keep J.T. Burnette out of prison pending appeal in corruption case

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U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ordered John "J.T." Burnette to report to federal prison early next month, ruling against a request by his lawyers to keep him out pending his appeal.

Jurors found Burnette guilty in August on extortion and four other counts for arranging bribes for Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox and later making false statements about it to the FBI. The jury found him not guilty on racketeering and several other counts.

John "J.T." Burnette leaves the U.S. Courthouse after he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for public corruption charges Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.
John "J.T." Burnette leaves the U.S. Courthouse after he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for public corruption charges Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Hinkle wrote that Burnette was convicted following a "full and fair" trial."

"The verdict, with both convictions and acquittals, showed the jury's understanding and conscientious application of the requirement for proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Hinkle wrote. "The evidence of guilt on the five counts of conviction was overwhelming."

Earlier story: Prosecutors ask judge to imprison J.T. Burnette pending appeal, call him a 'flight risk'

Hinkle last month sentenced Burnette, a wealthy and one-time politically influential local businessman, to three years in federal prison. He was told then to report by Jan. 9, though Hinkle, in his latest order, extended that to Jan. 23.

Burnette's legal team, including at least three lawyers with powerhouse Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly, argued that he should remain free pending appeal. They asserted that Hinkle made errors involving jury instructions and the testimony of an undercover FBI agent who played a key role in "Operation Capital Currency."

Back story:

Attorney Tim Jansen and J.T. Burnette listen to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle discuss the sentencing on public corruption on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Burnette was sentenced to 36 months.
Attorney Tim Jansen and J.T. Burnette listen to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle discuss the sentencing on public corruption on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Burnette was sentenced to 36 months.

The undercover investigation, which began in 2015, led to federal indictments against Maddox and Carter-Smith for taking bribes from city vendors in exchange for official action. Maddox and Carter-Smith pleaded guilty and testified against Burnette during his trial as part of cooperation agreements with the government.

Burnette's lawyers argued that Hinkle improperly changed a jury instruction involving the definition of bribery, omitting language that the money must be paid to an official for action on a matter that is "specific and focused."

They also asserted he improperly allowed "Mike Sweet," an agent who posed as a medical marijuana and real estate investor, to testify that Burnette made "false exculpatory" statements in recorded conversations to cover his tracks.

But Hinkle wrote that the "false exculpatory" statements were "a trivial drop in an ocean of evidence" and that the defense itself repeatedly used that phrase "to mock Mr. Sweet." He also said Burnette didn't object to the jury instructions during his trial and that his "new-found objections" were "unfounded."

"When an official agrees, in exchange for a payment, to take formal government action — even, for example, to vote in favor of an unidentified project — it is a bribe," Hinkle wrote.

Burnette is expected to serve his sentence at the minimum-security federal prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama, located on the grounds of Maxwell Air Force Base. Maddox is serving a five-year sentence at the federal prison camp in Talladega, Alabama; Carter-Smith is serving two years at the federal prison camp in Marianna.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate website headline that said Burnette would remain in prison. He is to report to prison by Jan. 23.

Contact Jeff Burlew at jburlew@tallahassee.com or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Judge denies request to keep J.T. Burnette out of prison pending appeal

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