“You come after my family, you’re a crook, that’s a problem”
Resulting in five convictions, the recently concluded JT Burnette public corruption trial was years in the making. Many players, large and small, have been caught up in its drama, but there has been one constant through it all – Erwin Jackson. And while luxury hotels and political payoffs have taken center stage, Jackson’s watchdog role began years before Burnett was even on the scene.
Our Tallahassee sat down with Jackson in his offices on Jackson Bluff Road where he runs a real estate business and other ventures. Jackson Enterprises is right across the street from Doak Campbell Stadium. The relatively small façade is deceiving as his spacious offices ramble far back from the street.
The building was still a beehive of activity and energy when we arrived for our interview just after 5 PM.
In this clip, Jackson relates his introduction to potential political corruption, which happened when a single mother, living in a small house near his Jackson Bluff Road office, came to him about a proposed biomass plant slated for the area.
JACKSON: John Marks had signed an agreement that the first day the biomass plant was operational, he would get paid $500,000. Now, I… called [T.K. Wetherell] and wanted to have a conversation with him because I had learned that his wife was on the board of the Perry Plant. They had wood scrapings and reprocessed paper mill stuff. They wanted to do away with [it] so she was on that board. She was going to get a 10- or 12-percent ownership interest in this biomass plant if her husband, T.K., would authorize the use of the FSU land to build a biomass plant that makes so much racket…it broke out windows within a two-block area.
So, basically, that’s how I got started…I tried to get with the Sheriff to say, “Look. There’s something wrong. You can’t give away FSU’s property, and you can’t do this. You can’t do that.” And then I finally went to State Attorney Willie Meggs in this situation, told him what was happening. [Even] Jackie Pons came out and said, “Let’s at least talk about this.” And he called a public meeting. Jackie Pons was a superstar there. He wasn’t involved [but] he said, “I’m responsible for these kids, the education. What are we talking about?”
We had a discussion. I pointed out what I had learned…I walked out of that meeting and [William Ferris, owner of the property] was there. It was dark….I stopped, and this man walks up to me and he introduced himself and said, “Mr. Jackson, what do you want? What do you want?” And I said, “Simple. What I want is I want you to take this biomass plant and I want you to move it halfway between here and Perry, out in the middle of the damn woods. And I’m happy.” “No. No.”, he says, “How much do you want?”
And then I said, “What do you mean how much?” Then it dawned on me that, “Hell, this guy wanted to bribe me.” And so then I got really loud because I felt he wants to bribe me or he wants to get me on tape…accepting a bribe; either way, [that] would not be in my best interest. So, I said, really loud, “What the hell are you doing? I wouldn’t take your damn money. You’re going to do this and leave town.” And man, I made it so loud…I was a little bit scared because [it was just] he and I, and it was dark. And there was nobody there and I exited. So if he was tape recording, it was tape-recorded. [My position] was really clear.
And then I went to see Willie Meggs. I told him what happened and then Willie Meggs said, “I talked with T.K. and all these different people.” And I said, “Someone’s got to do something…. Willie Meggs says, “I’ll tell you what I’d do.” He said, “I’m going to go ahead and take them to the Grand Jury. And just, we’ll air this thing.” I said, “Great.”
I go home that day and it was the next, I believe, the next day or two days later, the article came out. Willie Meggs says, “You know, he’s going to take the biomass plant to the grand jury” and the day after that, front page, ‘Biomass Plant Leaves Town.’
JACKSON: Boom. That’s where we started.
This clip features Jackson discussing his initial attempt to expose Scott Maddox’s activities, which was stopped by the US Attorney. However, two years later he learned the game was back on as the Small Business Administration became involved and a new US Attorney was named for the North Florida District.
JACKSON: The FBI was as depressed as I was. They’d spent a lot of time, a lot of money–John Marks… They had them, hands, hands, hands down. But it was so corrupt that Pamela Marsh wouldn’t prosecute these guys. Then [the FBI] left….And that was it for about two years. Then I’m sitting here and I get a phone call. And it was from the FBI, about someone I dealt with previously who’d asked a question or something. And I answered the question. And then I said, “You guys are back in town.” And-
LOTANE: This was a [FBI] guy who you had dealt with before?
JACKSON: Right….And he said, “You guys were back in town”, or, “You guys are back on the case?” …He said, “This phone call didn’t take place. I’ve got everything we have need right now. We’ll be back in touch, but promise me that this didn’t occur.” I said, “How I don’t even, I don’t remember it already, but good luck to you.”
So, I knew they had started things up. [But the FBI had decided] We’re not going to go down there and try to find a problem. We’re going to take our own people down there. We’re going to set up our own staff. We’re going to have our own…photographers and wiretaps. And we’re going to have our own sting. But they were pissed off and so they came back.
I was told…Washington had contacted the FBI, and Washington, and said, “Hey guys, if you’re going back down there to deal with John Marks and Scott Maddox…Gillium’s probably came in a little bit later. But those are the two main people. They said, “There’s a guy that you’ll probably run into, and he’s stolen $12,000,000 or $15,000,000 from the SBA and [they were] more aggravated about it. Well, what’s his name? You know his name?
JACKSON: JT Burnette. I never heard of JT Burnette. I had no clue anything about JT. I still have never met him.
Hear Jackson discusses how a Small Business Administration loan to JT Burnett caught the eye of the FBI, and potentially was the seed money for medical marijuana powerhouse Trulieve.
JACKSON: So, [the FBI] came down and started doing their thing, and sure enough, J.T. Burnette pops up. Now, what they say he did…is that he borrowed either 12 or 15 million from the SBA…Then he’s got these 50 companies, one of them his cousin runs…The other one is this friend, who is kind of a business contractor he’s worked with who would do anything he says…
So, he gets his 15 million or 12. Let’s say 12 if you do the math. He gives this person three, three, three, and three for work. And then in a few months, whatever he paid 12 million dollars for in work was gone. The money moved from his company to these companies and then this company filed bankruptcy…
What do you think J.T. did with 12 million dollars? Well, one thing I know he did after getting 12 million is he went up to Quincy and started working the pot plant deal and that’s expensive. He’s got a lot of expense in putting that together and he’s got places all over. Well, that was seed money to get him started.
Jackson’s tangles with the city have not just been with elected officials and lobbyists. In this clip, he recounts his battles with former City Manager Rick Fernandez and how his bankers asked him to just leave well enough alone.
JACKSON: This is just small-time potatoes. But Scott, he was very good at it and very arrogant. And he was able to get the city manager, who is a crook and he should be investigated…
LOTANE: Rick Fernandez.
JACKSON: Rick Fernandez. And I’m up there on his case. And you see the picture back there. I like that [one] of Rick Fernandez when he has his head up against the wall and it says ill-gotten gains or something. But who pushed to pay him off? Scott Maddox. Scott pushed to hire him. Then when he had to go, then Scott said, “Well, this is just nothing. Just go ahead.” Well, Scott knew right then he had his burner phone, okay, and he said, “You know, he’s been good. Let’s just let him go. And we’ll get someone new in here… [Fernandez] used city resources. I got the names of people. City resources, city employees, city trucks to do work on his personal home. Then, he sent the crew over to his daughter’s home, put a new water line, new sewer system.
LOTANE: I forgot about that.
JACKSON: Okay, and what happened from that? Nothing, nothing. And it’s like how stupid, how embarrassing for the Chamber of Commerce, other business owners, other lobbyists, other bank presidents. They knew what was going on. I try to go, you know, raise a few bucks from bankers. They said, “Erwin, we love your business. You’re one hell of a businessman. Why the hell are you getting involved in this mess?” I said, “Because he’s stealing from us.” “Well, you know, it’s kind of a way of doing business here.” And the number of bank presidents that told me that was unbelievable.
Jackson is friendly with a few TPD officers and, in this clip, was tipped off that city hierarchy is hatching plans to attack his business and family.
JACKSON: City Attorney and Scott Maddox decided, and John Marks, it would be a good idea to teach Jackson a damn lesson. Now, I was told and this is really my last really important part, I was told by the police, [because I’ve] got a couple of buddies in the police department. They said, “Hey, Erwin, you know, you’re raising hell with these guys and they’re pissed off.” I told them, yeah, I’m certain…and…they kind of stumble around [before they tell me].
I said, what? “Well, I hear what they’re going to do is they’re going to have someone go out and plant pot plants in several of your houses.” …You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what I own and it’s hilarious. I said, are you kidding me? And he said that’s what I’ve been told. So I’m sitting here [later] and happened to be with this police officer and I get a phone call and it’s from one of my yard guys and he said, “Erwin…there’s a homeless woman over here at 1661 Airport Drive and she’s in the back of the house sleeping under some azalea bushes.”
I said, okay. I said…well, go up to her. Tell her that you can’t sleep here in the bushes because we’ve got the house rented and, you know, whatever….”Fine”.
Fifteen minutes later, he calls me back. “Hey, Erwin…We’ve moved…to 2 blocks down here at Green Briar and these guys [are] trimming and putting some new plants down…[and] You know, that homeless woman that I told you about? She’s down here at Greenbrier.” I said, what do you mean? How did she get down there? [He didn’t know but] “Well, she ran out to the street. When I asked her to leave, jumped in her car and drove off.” And I’m saying, look, [maybe] this doesn’t make any sense but I had heard [the rumor] about the pot plants and…you just don’t know what these crazy people are going to do.
JACKSON: It’s all coming back, see, and once I start talking about it and the trial, it all kind of comes back and I said, look, here’s what you do…One of you stay there working, the other guy leave, circle around behind this “homeless” person [if she comes back], take your camera. As you’re walking up to her, go click, one step, click, click click click, click. And anyway, she turns around, stuck her hand up in front of the camera trying to protect her face.
And that was a picture. The next day, was the front page of the newspaper.
JACKSON: And the City Attorney approved [it] with Scott and with John Marks even though they said they knew nothing about it. Now, if you can believe that, you know, Rick Fernandez and the City Attorney did this and no one knew about it ..and of all the people here, the only people they decided to spy on me and my employees and my family because my two boys were living at Greenbrier and all hell broke loose on that.
JACKSON: So at that moment, then I knew, okay. You start bringing in my damn family. This is gonna be a damn blood sport.