TALLAHASSEE — After reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors, suspended Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox grudgingly admitted guilt Tuesday to three fraud charges in a “pay-to-play” bribery probe, as the U.S. attorney announced increased efforts to crack down on public corruption.
Under the guilty plea accepted by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, prosecutors dropped 39 of 42 charges against Maddox, a former Florida Democratic Party chairman nabbed in a multi-year investigation into city government.
The investigation factored into last year’s gubernatorial race between former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, the eventual winner. Gillum, a Democrat, has not been charged with any crimes in the federal probe, but earlier this year he agreed to pay $5,000 to settle a state ethics commission investigation.
The FBI investigation, however, resulted in indictments for Maddox and his longtime aide and former business partner, Paige Carter-Smith, who on Tuesday also pleaded guilty to the same three charges as Maddox.
Hinkle has scheduled a November trial for a third defendant in the case, Tallahassee businessman J.T. Burnette.
But it’s far from certain that the public corruption probe has ended.
Following the hour-long hearing Tuesday morning in the Maddox and Carter-Smith cases, U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe, whose North Florida district spans from the Alabama-Florida border to Gainesville, told reporters he has launched a “public trust unit” aimed at “identifying, investigating, disrupting and prosecuting government corruption and on securing elections.”
Keefe said he hoped Maddox and Carter-Smith — who each face a maximum of 45 years behind bars and $750,000 in fines — “will come forward, fully accept their responsibility and cooperate by providing truthful information in this case and about any potentially criminal conduct beyond the scope of this particular case.”
Maddox, 51, and Carter-Smith, 54, agreed to plead guilty to two charges of “honest services” fraud involving a ride-share company and a bogus development company set up by the FBI and one count of conspiracy to commit tax fraud. Hinkle set a sentencing hearing for the pair in mid-November.
In a statement of facts filed with the court Tuesday, Maddox and Carter-Smith admitted to soliciting payments from a ride-sharing company in exchange for favorable actions from the city commission in 2015. The court documents show that “Company B” paid a Carter-Smith business a total of $30,000 and that her businesses paid Maddox approximately $40,000 during the same time period.
But during questioning by Hinkle about the payments Tuesday, Maddox was reluctant to admit wrongdoing, saying he did not believe that what was in the statement of facts “constitutes a crime.”
A courtroom packed with reporters, lawyers and onlookers appeared taken aback by Maddox’s reticence, as was the judge, who continued to query Maddox about his actions.
Hinkle asked Maddox whether he met with representatives of the ride-sharing company and referred them to Carter-Smith, telling them she could procure a positive outcome from the city commissioner on the company’s issue.
Maddox said he offered an amendment that was favorable to the company and joined in the commission’s unanimous vote in support of the ordinance.
“I believe I would have voted that way regardless,” Maddox said, before acknowledging that he would not have offered the amendment “if she had not been representing” the company.
The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper reported in 2017 that ride-sharing company Uber had hired Carter-Smith during intense lobbying about a local ordinance that pitted the app-based industry against taxi companies.
When asked Tuesday morning by Hinkle if she and Maddox had agreed to “solicit payment” from the unidentified ride-sharing company, Carter-Smith told the judge that “the client assumed by hiring me that they would have his support.”
“They were paying Mr. Maddox for his vote,” the judge insisted.
“He would have voted for it anyway,” Carter-Smith responded.
The pair’s remarks elicited a lecture from the judge about the nature of their pending guilty pleas.
“When a defendant comes in and says, ‘I didn’t do it,’ I don’t take the plea,” the judge said.
Hiring a lobbyist who gets good results is not illegal, Hinkle pointed out. But “it’s not OK” to solicit payments from clients in exchange for votes, he said.
“That’s a crime, even if Mr. Maddox would have voted that way anyway,” he said.
Hinkle said he began the hearing with an understanding that “the two of you agreed to solicit payments in exchange for Mr. Maddox’s favorable vote” but that “you both kind of danced around that.”
“Did you take money for the official action or did you not?” the judge demanded, prompting the defendants and their lawyers to huddle briefly.
“Your honor, I want to plead guilty,” Maddox said after a short discussion with his lawyer, Stephen Dobson.
But Hinkle wasn’t satisfied, again asking Maddox whether he had taken money in exchange for a favorable vote.
“Yes, sir,” Maddox said.
Informing Maddox and Carter-Smith of the maximum sentences associated with the charges, Hinkle noted that the government can impose lower sentences based on “substantial assistance” from defendants.
Maddox, who had maintained his innocence since being indicted in December, decided to accept the plea agreement because it was in “the best interest” of the community and his family, Dobson told reporters after the hearing.
Maddox’s father died recently, and the longtime political figure is largely responsible for the care of his aging stepmother, Dobson said.
“He felt it was in the best interest to move forward, get this over with and get on with his life, and let Tallahassee move forward, too,” Dobson said.
Keefe would not elaborate on whether he expects more indictments as part of the investigation, but court documents filed by prosecutors on Friday referenced “multiple investigations” that resulted in hundreds of hours of recordings, including wiretapped telephone calls, and tens of thousands of pages of documents, including bank transactions.
“We would not be establishing this public trust unit, and doing all of the things I am telling you about today, if we were not pursuing all sorts of leads in all sorts of places, that I simply can’t share with you,” he said.
Keefe’s new anti-corruption unit, located on the third floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Tallahassee, puts elected officials on notice in the third-largest state in the nation.
“That very small group that serves for their own illegal benefit or profit, and those who illegally seek to influence them, will be the targets of our work in the public trust unit,” he said.
-- News Service of Florida