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Yearty conviction upheld by appeals court

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By The Staff

Suspended Levy County Commissioner Sammy Yearty's appeal of his convictions on solicitation and acceptance of a bribe and lying to the FBI in an interview were upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in an unpublished ruling released Wednesday.

The ruling by the three-judge panel of the Atlanta court is a victory for District Chief Judge Stephan P. Mickle and Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg McMahon, the judge and prosecutor in a series of public corruption trials against officials in Levy and Dixie counties.

Yearty, District 3 commissioner and chairman of the board when he was arrested on Nov. 5, 2008, is serving a 33-months at a federal prison in Pensacola. He was also sentenced to pay a $10,300 fine and serve three years probation in May 2010.

He and District 1 County Commissioner Tony Parker, who was sentenced to six months house arrest and five years probation, were convicted in December 2009 of accepting $10,000 for a trip to New York in December 2007 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer.

Their convictions were part of a public corruption investigation that also netted the convictions of several Dixie County and Cross City officials. The same FBI agent, Sean Quinn, posed as Sean Michaels, a developer from New Jersey who wanted to build medium density housing in the counties.

The most riveting part of the trial, which used hours of recordings made by the agent, was a video of Quinn as Michaels counting out a stack of $100 bills and giving Parker $4,000 and Yearty $6,000 to cover the cost of a weekend trip to New York City.

Yearty and Parker's arrests in the days following their relection in the November 2008 general election rocked the county. Yearty was a third-generation commissioner, appointed to the seat his father had held in 1978 by then-Gov. Reubin Askew.

A third person indicted in the case, Pamela Blair, former Nature Coast Business Development Council and Enterprise Zone Development Agency executive director, has yet to go to trial on charges of lying to the FBI.

The three judge appeals panel said in its ruling:

• Yearty contends he was entitled to a mistrial because a government agent’s
testimony, which suggested his defense counsel had also been engaged in corrupt
activities, materially prejudiced him. The district court did not abuse its discretion
in denying Yearty’s motion for a mistrial because of the instructions given to the jury to ignor the testimony.

"In addition, because the record contains sufficient independent evidence of guilt, Yearty cannot show that, but for the improper remarks, the outcome of the trial would be different," the judges said int he ruling.

• Yearty contends the district court erred in denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal as to his false statements conviction, because the questions asked during his August 18, 2008 FBI interview were fundamentally ambiguous. "The questions posed during his FBI interview were not so ambiguous that 'men of ordinary intelligence' could not agree as to their meaning," according to the ruling. The judges said Yearty’s understanding of the questions was a matter for the jury to decide and the motion was properly denied by Mickle.
• Yearty argued Mickle erred in denying his motion to dismiss the false statements count of the indictment saying they did not relate to a material matter within the FBI’s jurisdiction.
"We reject Yearty’s contention that his false statements were legally immaterial. They pertained to facts forming the basis of the FBI’s federal bribery investigation." The ruling said Mickle correctly concluded the false statements count of the indictment was not legally defective.

• Yearty also appeals the district court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal on all three charges because the evidence was inadequate and he was denied a defense of entrapment. "A reasonable construction of the evidence allowed the jury to find Yearty guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," the judges said.

•The judges also said Yearty's request to dismiss the lying charge on the grounds that it could not stand on its own without the bribery charges was denied because he did not raise the issue at trial.  The court said Yearty's request for dismissal of the lying charge at trial due to the FBI's failure to ask specific questions invoking the agency's authority, were properly rejected by the trial court "because Yearty’s false statements were material to the FBI’s bribery investigation. ... The deficiency, if any, was that Count III did not include enough information to 'stand on its own,' not that the FBI was incapable of having jurisdiction based on its line of questioning, but Yearty did not raise that issue in the district court."
• Yearty's argument that Mickle erred in denying his motion for a new trial “based upon the cumulative effect of errors at trial,”  was denied. The appeals court ruling said Mickle did nt abuse his discretion.

"The district court did not err in any of its rulings, let alone commit cumulative errors that would entitle Yearty to a new trial," the judges said.