USA v. John Burnette, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects McDonnell Challenges to Bribery Convictions – Also, What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas
Real Estate Developer John Burnette was convicted on multiple counts of bribery following an undercover FBI investigation in Tallahassee, Florida. Burnette’s appeal centered around two issues: examining the Supreme Court’s definition of “official acts” as outlined in McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. 550 (2016) and challenging his conviction for providing false statements to federal agents. The court rejected Burnette’s appeal, affirming his convictions.
The investigation into Burnette was initiated in 2015 when two FBI agents posing as developers approached Burnette, who controlled a real estate syndicate in Tallahassee. The agents identified two projects, Fallschase and Myers Park, for further development, and Burnette agreed to support them. The idea here was that Brunette and these others would encourage Tallahassee officials to approve development opportunities for these two pieces of land (but annexing Fallschase to increase its value, and approving a Request for Proposal authorizing the city to invite potential developers to bid for Myers Park). Burnette’s co-defendant, Scott Maddox, agreed to support the projects in exchange for monthly payments to Governance Services, run by his girlfriend. The FBI agents sent checks to Governance ($10,000 a month for the next 3 years!) and took Burnette, Maddox, and another co-defendant, Carter-Smith, on a trip to Las Vegas to discuss Fallschase and Myers Park. I guess this is how real estate developers roll?
During the trip, Maddox made it clear that the payments were in exchange for his “piece of the pie,” while Burnette warned the agents not to stop payments, or Maddox would retaliate. Burnette was subsequently indicted and convicted of five counts following a trial: Hobbs Act extortion, honest-services mail fraud, using interstate commerce for unlawful activity, and false statements.
Burnette challenged his convictions on two grounds: First, he challenged the district court’s jury instruction defining the “official act” term, and second, he argued that the government failed to prove that Maddox agreed to assist him with a specific “matter.” The Supreme Court clarified the definition of “official act” in McDonnell v. United States to require a “sufficiently serious act” and a “sufficiently serious and “concrete” matter.” Burnette argued that the district court’s instruction failed to narrow or adequately explain the “matter” requirement. However, the court found that Burnette’s trial counsel agreed to the judge’s instructions (invoking the “invited error doctrine”) and thus rejected Burnette’s challenge.
Burnette also challenged his extortion and honest-services-fraud convictions, arguing that the government failed to prove that Maddox agreed to assist him with a particular “matter.” However, the court found that the government provided ample evidence that Burnette arranged for a series of $10,000 payments to Maddox’s girlfriend’s company in exchange for Maddox’s vote or abstention in connection with the Fallschase and Myers Park projects. The court concluded that a rational jury could have found that Burnette agreed to facilitate the bribery of Maddox to act on a matter (or matters) meeting McDonnell’s requirement and rejected this sufficiency of the evidence claim.
Burnette’s appeal also challenged the district court’s exclusion of salacious evidence relating to the conduct of the undercover cops (buying Burnette a “dance” and uh, other things while they were in Vegas) and the admission of testimony accusing him of making false exculpatory statements. The court reviewed both rulings for abuse of discretion and affirmed both, although it’s clear from the opinion the Court did not approve of the judge’s excluding evidence that bore on the undercover cop’s character. The Court here held “[t]he district court reasonably (if perhaps incorrectly) concluded that questioning and extrinsic evidence related to Sweet’s alleged conduct in purchasing oral sex for Maddox, as well as his subsequent denial, bore on his “character for truthfulness” within the meaning of Rule 608(b).
In conclusion, John Burnette’s appeal was rejected, and his convictions for bribery were affirmed. The court found that Burnette arranged for payments to Maddox’s girlfriend’s company in exchange for Maddox’s vote or abstention in connection with the Fallschase and Myers Park projects. The court concluded that a rational jury could have found that Burnette agreed to facilitate the bribery of Maddox to act on a matter (or matters) meeting McDonnell‘s requirements.nIf you have any questions about the appeals process in federal criminal cases, please call our firm at (803) 445-1333 or visit our website at www.elizabethfranklinbestlaw.com.