Public corruption charges growing
The federal probe into alleged public corruption in the Florida Panhandle in the aftermath of 2018‘s Hurricane Michael is widening. A former city commissioner and a developer have now been charged, joining a former mayor and a former city attorney in what prosecutors say was a pay-to-play scheme with storm cleanup contracts in the town of Lynn Haven, near Panama City. The increased scrutiny also netted two Bay County building department officials last week charged with changing records.
It was last summer that former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and former City Attorney Joseph Albritton were indicted by a federal grand jury for their role while in office in illegally steering post-hurricane debris cleanup and construction contracts to a local contractor. In addition to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud, Anderson was charged with making false statements to FBI agents and Albritton was charged with submitting a false invoice to an insurance company for hurricane debris removal from his residence.
A recent superseding indictment now includes David Finch, owner of Phoenix Construction Company and former Lynn Haven City Commissioner Antonius Barnes. The indictment alleges that after the Category 5 hurricane struck in October 2018, Finch and Barnes conspired with Anderson and Albritton to ensure that contracts for numerous multimillion-dollar infrastructure and construction projects and post-hurricane debris clean-up projects were awarded to Finch’s firm. In return, Finch allegedly gave money and gifts to Anderson and Barnes, and Albritton received money from a company doing debris clean-up.
Then last week, the Bay County Sheriff’s Department announced the arrest of the county’s deputy building inspector, Ross Pritchard, and building code officer Crystal Owens for official misconduct. Pritchard, a licensed contractor and owner of RP Builders is accused of conducting inspections of work completed by his own company, which is a 2nd degree misdemeanor in Florida. He then allegedly tried to alter public records to cover it up.
Owens is also accused of changing a public record and submitting a building inspection she never performed. She allegedly changed the contractor of record on a building permit from Banfield Construction, which was barred from doing work in Bay County, to RP Builders, Pritchard’s firm, covering up what amounted to unlicensed contracting, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
LMA Newsletter of 4-12-21