09 May Indicted real estate mogul key player in Tallahassee development
Entrepreneur. Real estate magnate. Hotelier. Financial Engineer. Chicken fancier.
John “J.T.” Burnette has a career trajectory many would envy — from raising chickens as a kid to becoming a major power broker at the pinnacle of downtown and Midtown Tallahassee’s redevelopment heyday.
But for the last two years he has been one of several figures at the center of a public corruption probe that involved undercover FBI agents trying to influence local officials, secret wiretaps, and airplane trips to Las Vegas.
Indictment No. 3: Prolific Tallahassee businessman J.T. Burnette indicted in FBI corruption investigation
The first two subpoenas dropped on City Hall two summers ago name Burnette and a string of cohorts and businesses associated with him: Kim Rivers, IB Tallahassee, Inkbridge Acquisitions, Chad Kittrell, Hunter and Harp Holdings, Duval Partners, Frank Whitley, Whitley Construction, Melissa Oglesby, KaiserKane, Catherine Baker, SheltonDean, and Sunnyland Solar.
He also popped up as a character in both a search warrant and later an indictment describing alleged real estate deals and pay-to-play activities by suspended City Commissioner Scott Maddox and his longtime business partner, Paige Carter-Smith.
All three were involved in real estate deals with each other and socialized regularly.
►A TANGLED WEB: A look at those under the microscope of federal investigators and their connections to the city, businesses and each other
Here are nine things you need to know about one of the most prolific businessmen in Tallahassee.
From roofing to restaurants: Born in Georgia, Burnette was raised in Monticello, where he started his own roofing company at 17. When they were in their 30s, Burnette and former business partner Kittrell started Hunter & Harp and developed several bars and restaurants in Midtown that attracted young professionals. Those included The Winery and Tapas, which later became the Midtown Filling Station and Alchemy, and the Front Porch.
More: Developers under federal scrutiny have deep ties with Tallahassee
Hotel renovations: In 2007 they created Duval Partners and bought the Hotel Duval for $4 million, took out $5.25 million in SBA loans and spent an additional $5 million to turn it into a boutique hotel with a Shula’s restaurant and a rooftop lounge. They sold it to Louisville-based Schulte Hospitality Group for $23 million. Years later, under the name of IB Tallahassee, they bought the DoubleTree Hilton for $21 million in 2014, and spent $8 million renovating it. They are near completion on a 7,500-square foot 17th floor addition that will house a restaurant, lounge and outdoor patio.
“Financial engineering”: Burnette and Rivers developed a knack for snagging public dollars for their projects. He recruited Rivers after she moved back from Atlanta several years ago and partnered on Inkbridge, which they called a “financial engineering” investment firm. They also started Imagine Tallahassee, which tried to influence how Blueprint 2020 sales tax revenue was spent. The dynamic duo tied the knot in March on Burnette’s 42nd birthday. She is CEO of Trulieve, Florida’s largest purveyor of medical marijuana.
Recapitalizing ProBank: Through Inkbridge, Burnette and Rivers started to raise money from investors to recapitalize ProBank in 2012, which was on the verge of being shut down by the FDIC until board members raised $4.6 million.Their intended goal was to “launch an SBA lending platform” for small businesses to obtain low-interest loans. American Commerce Bank of Georgia acquired and merged ProBank in June 2015.
Saving the Mint: Burnette used his connections as a shareholder with ProBank to buy the debt-plagued 101 restaurant and Mint Lounge and leased it back to Adam Corey until he could secure his own financing to buy it. Burnette paid off the restaurant’s debts after prior owner Anthony Murgio defaulted on his loan. Corey, who was also named in the FBI subpoenas and played a key role introducing the undercover agents to city and county officials, including former Mayor Andrew Gillum, leased it from Burnette from October 2012 until March 2014, when Corey was able to purchase the popular restaurant and lounge.
Solar sausages: One of Burnette’s and Rivers’ financial engineering feats was to assemble a patchwork of federal and state loans and grants to build a solar farm with cutting edge technology, using long, transparent plastic balloons or “solar sausages” to generate electricity. They received $12.5 million in New Market Tax Credits and $11.9 million in Qualified Low-Income Community Investment money, but state records show they only spent $14 million. Storms damaged the equipment beyond repair and they abandoned the Sunnyland Solar project.
Gateway Center: Burnette was a driving force behind the four-story office building at the intersection of North Monroe and Tennessee Street that was supposed to be a centerpiece of the 18-hour downtown. Burnette received $1.8 million in tax incentives from the Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency to help build it. He is listed as the manager of the holding company that owns the building — which is now partially occupied after Walgreen’s moved out.
Adams Street Lofts: Maddox and Burnette have real estate ties dating back to 2008, when Maddox bought nine units in the Adams Street lofts and then sold them to Carter-Smith. Soon after, she sold five of the units to Burnette’s firm, Hunter & Harp, for $475,000, making about $40,000 per unit more than she paid for them. Burnette still owns a unit in the building, and is listed as an officer of the Adams Street Lofts Condominium Association.
What happens in Vegas: Burnette was first to introduce three undercover FBI agents posing as developers to city and county officials, beginning at a Chamber of Commerce retreat at Sandestin in 2015. He was later photographed with those agents, a little person entertainer, and Maddox waving a “hang loose” surfer hand sign. It is believed that Burnette is “Person G” in the Maddox indictment, acting as the conduit between Maddox and the FBI agents.
Contact Schweers at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.