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‘The citizens of Tallahassee are victims of a crime’: Ethics expert and City leaders react to Burnette verdict

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 6:00 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - After JT Burnette was found guilty of extortion and four other charges against him, City leaders and ethics experts are reacting to the verdict.

Burnette was found not guilty of four of the other nine counts against him on Friday, August 13.

Ben Wilcox, the Research Director for the research institute and nonprofit Integrity Florida, says the City of Tallahassee has a black eye that’s going to take years to heal.

“It’s terrible for the City,” Wilcox said. “Obviously a crime has been committed, and the citizens of Tallahassee are victims of a crime.”

Wilcox argues local government should be proactive in promoting transparency; he says it starts with lobbyists.

Former City Commissioner Scott Maddox and Paige Carter-Smith’s lobbying firm, “Governance, Inc”, was a major part of the JT Burnette trial. Burnette was convicted of facilitating two payments, in January and February of 2017, to Governance from the undercover FBI agents’ front company, “Southern Pines Development.”

Wilcox says the Independent Ethics Board currently has three ordinances on the table for the City Commission to review, all dealing with lobbying.

He says right now, not everyone who is lobbying is registered.

“So one of the ordinances the ethics board is recommending would tighten that definition of what is a lobbyist and would capture these people who are currently unregistered, and kind of deceiving the public,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox says the other two ordinances would allow the Ethics Board to have some oversight on the registration of lobbyists and allow members of the public to file a complaint if they believe a person has not accurately registered.

“That’s the reason we have lobby registration requirements is so that the public can see the forces moving beneath the surface of government and influencing public policy,” Wilcox said.

He adds that he believes the City needs to do some self-reflection.

“My concern is that there are people involved with City government that may have either turned a blind eye or in some ways enabled this kind of corruption to take place in Tallahassee,” Wilcox said.

Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey said the actions of a few do not define the entire community.

“I was angry and disappointed, much like everyone in Tallahassee of the corruption that took place, and how it affects public trust in Tallahassee,” Dailey said. “I’m sure that we have all learned lessons throughout this entire event, and so we, I’m sure, will have a nice long conversation about what other actions need to take place.”

Dailey says transparency is vital.

“That’s the first step in truly restoring public trust in City Hall. Whether it comes to full financial disclosure, how we conduct ourselves, all of these elements are very important,” Dailey said. “I ran for Mayor to restore public trust. Very proud that in the first year we were able to pass the most comprehensive ethics reform package in the City of Tallahassee and in the state of Florida.”

City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow says he was disturbed about what came out during the trial

“Bribery and public corruption has infiltrated our City to the very top, at the highest level of City Hall. But I think the good thing is, justice was served,” Matlow said.

Matlow says he will be bringing forward his own recommendations on ethics later in the fall.

“If you’re a business leader and you were paying bribes, I think we need to cancel your contracts. If you’re a member of staff that was enabling this behavior, I think we need to see your resignation,” Matlow said. “And as a City, as elected officials, we need to really look at our policies and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

Scott Maddox and Paige Carter-Smith are scheduled to be sentenced on September 9, while JT Burnette is set to be sentenced on October 28.

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