By JEFFREY POWELL
“I plan to appeal today’s verdict,” said suspended South Walton County Mosquito Control District (SWCMCD) Commissioner Gregory Charles (Charlie) Burke. “This decision did not follow the rule of the law.”
Burke’s comments came on June 11, shortly after a jury of his peers found him guilty of false swearing to any oath or false certification of nomination and submission of false voter registration information.
Burke’s troubles began on Dec 4, 2007, when he was arrested just prior to a SWCMCD board meeting. The state alleged that burke used a false address when he applied to run for the commissioner position. Burke claimed to reside at 2780 U.S. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, the home of Dave’s Glass. The state contends that he resides in neighboring Bay County with his wife Jenny. Since that time Governor Charlie Crist suspended Burke by executive order from participating in SWCMCD issues until the case was resolved.
A jury for the case was seated on Monday, June 9, in a scene reminiscent of the days prior to air-conditioned courthouses. A weekend lightning storm had apparently knocked out the electricity to the Walton County Courthouse and the air-conditioning had failed to re-set. First Judicial Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells provided the prospective jurors with manila envelopes to fan themselves as they waited. Wells apologized to the citizens and promised not to have the same problem Tuesday.
The court case began in ernest the following morning in a much cooler setting. During his opening statement Assistant State Attorney Greg Anchors stated he would provide the jury with evidence that would prove Burke did not live at Dave’s Glass and therefore it could not be claimed as a legal residency. Burke’s opening comments followed with claims that he had been “thrust into this case by the state” and that the charges had no validity.
On this first day of the trial the state called 14 witnesses, ranging from neighbors to Burke’s wife in Panama City Beach to a Houston County, AL., property appraiser.
Due to the amount of cases being heard at the Walton County Courthouse, the second day of the trial was held at the South Walton Courthouse Annex in Santa Rosa Beach with the state resuming its case. In one of the more defining moments of the case a Panama City resident testified that when told Burke could not run for an office in Walton County because he lived in Bay County, Burke said, “There are ways around that.” The state then rested its case.
Burke’s defense, in which he represented himself – as he has done all along – began with the statement, “I do not really have a plan here.” Afterwards he called upon several witnesses, none of which came out and directly said Burke resided in Walton County. Burke later took the stand and emphatically denied the charges.
“My residence, I firmly state is 2780 U.S. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach,” Burke said. “My wife’s residence and my residence are separate. I have full intentions of being a Walton County resident.”
Throughout the trial Wells had demonstrated great patience and had given what he called a “certain latitude” to Burke as he was representing himself. During his closing arguments Burke was able to test the flexibility of the judge when he continued to quote a statute after being warned not to do so on numerous instances.
“I am directing you not to give anymore information of this type,” Wells said sternly. “If you do you will be held in contempt of this court.”
After receiving the judges instructions the jury retired to discuss their verdict. Within approximately 1 1/2 hours, the six-member jury (five men, one woman) jury came back with guilty verdicts on both charges.
Each count carries a potential jail sentence of five years, and a maximum fine of $5,000. Wells ordered a pre-sentencing investigation and set the sentencing date for July 10.
“It is always satisfying when a jury finds merit in the prosecution of matters of this nature,” said Anchors. “Especially when Mr. Burke refused to acknowledge his lawful residence.” The State Attorney intends to contact the governor, a move that which should have the ultimate effect of removing Burke permanently from office. The verdict will no doubt have an influence on Burke’s intention to run for Walton County Board of County Commissioners.
CHARLIE BURKE was found guilty of fraudulently claiming to be living in Walton County while serving as a member of the South Walton County Mosquito Control Board. Burke was suspended from that post by Gov. Charlie Crist pending the outcome of his trial.