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Suspended Levy County Commissioner Tony Parker was sentenced to six months house arrest, five years probation and 500 hours of community service on Wednesday afternoon by Federal Chief District Judge Stephan P. Mickle.
Parker, along with Commission Chair Sammy Yearty was convicted of soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer. Yearty was also convicted of lying to the FBI during an interview and will be sentenced on May 5.
Pamela Blair, the third person charged in the Levy County portion of the FBI's corruption investigation, goes on trial on June 1 in Mickle's court. She is accused of lying to the FBI in an interview.
The three were indicted on Oct. 20, 2008, but the document was sealed to prevent the news from influencing the Nov. 4, 2008 general election. After Yearty and Parker won re-election, the indictment was unsealed on Nov. 5 and Gov. Charlie Crist suspended them from office. Crist's office has maintained that it is up to the state Senate, under Florida law, to decide the question of removing the convicted commissioners from office. The Senate is not expected to take action until all appeals have been exhausted.
Parker faced a recommended prison sentence of 27-33 months, but 12 people, including Parker's oldest son Wesley, 23, asked Mickle to show compassion. The testimony was punctuated by tears from the most weathered, hard-working of the men for whom the emotion was obviously difficult.
Parker told Mickle, "I had no idea the meeting was going to be like this, that money was going to be passed out." He said when the money was pulled out by the FBI agent, "I didn't know what to do." He said he left the meeting with the money because he wanted to talk to Yearty and think about what he should do.
After the two men took a trip to New York City financed with the $10,000, Parker tried numerous times to pay back the cash, eventually meeting another undercover agent in a parking lot to hand over the money and admonishing, "You did not need to do that."
Parker also said he keenly felt the shame of the damage he had done to the community — mentioning it several times.
Mickle took 40 minutes to consider the testimony of the character witnesses before returning to court at 12:50 p.m.
The judge called public corruption a "pernicious evil that damages."
The first indication that Mickle would be lenient — as he has given serious prison time to Dixie County officials convicted in the same federal corruption probe — came with his finding, "That your offense constitutes aberrent behavior" for Parker.
Mickle noted that while Parker did not take responsibility for the crime instead professing innocence during the trial and claiming entrapment, he was forthcoming with the facts when interviewed by the FBI, and was genuinely remorseful. The judge said he considered Parker's character, good works in the community and that he is unlikely to break the law again.
Noting the financial hardship Parker faces the judge waived payment of probation fees, the cost of the electronic monitoring of his house arrest ,and said should Parker decide to appeal the judge would appoint an attorney to represent him and waive the cost of obtaining a transcript.
Mickle also admonished Parker to "consistently and constantly thank Mrs. (Gloria) Fletcher for the job she has done for you." Attorney Gloria Fletcher argued right to the last that Parker had tried to return the gift and felt it was covered by the state's gift law which says gifts in excess of $100 must be reported publicly or returned within 30 days. The law contrasts with the federal statute that bars the acceptance of bribes of $5,000 or more by public officials whose governments accept federal grants.
All of Parker's character witnesses said the commissioner exemplified character, demonstrated faith in God and often supported the community as he did his own family throughout his life.
John Braxton, a captain in charge of investigations for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said he grew up with Parker. "He often kept us out of trouble," Braxton said. He characterized Parker as solid and law abiding, and confirmed under questioning by Fletcher that he had never previously testified on anyone's behalf in sentencing.
Pastor Troy Turner of First Baptist Church in Bronson asked Mickle to consider whether imprisoning Parker would benefit the community and said it would create a hardship on his family, and employees in Parker's business. Turner noted that Parker made Bronson Speedway family friendly by ending alcohol sales and lowering ticket prices.
Turner said while some men would run and hide from the community, "He's not like that. He's been to church and in the community despite the hardship this has placed on his family."
Bruce Greenlee and Jimmy Jerrells, current and former Levy County Road Department supervisors, testified that Parker taught them lessons in life.
"He taught me what a true friend is," Greenlee said. "He taught me his love for his sons. And I have sons and I value that relationship." Greenlee said when Miracle Vision Tabernacle was started in Raleigh, Parker loaned the church land-clearing equipment that allowed the church and Vision Christian Academy to open their doors. "It was free of charge and it helped the ministry getoff and running," Greenlee said.
Jerrells vouched. "I never had Tony ask me to go outside the guidelines. He was always straight up." He asked Mickle "if we could just keep him with his family in these hard times."
Lonnie Terry, a lifelong Parker friend, related how Parker found the funds — without seeking donations — when a young man died and the family could not afford a burial.
Joe Connor, who has known Parker for 40 years, said the commissioner grew up with a lot of hardships, echoing Terry's statement that both had grown up without a father in their lives. "I have never known him to hold malice toward anyone," Connor said."Or do anything illegal."
The point was made that throughout the case Parker had not uttered one criticism of the FBI, the court, the judge or the judicial process.
Connor said Parker set an example through good work ethics, family values and helping, often donating out of his own pocket, those in the community.
"He had no criminal intent in his mind here," Connor said. "I ask for mercy. I ask you to take a second look. ... Please grant him mercy in a dignified way."
The Rev. Donnell Sanders of Fort White said he first met Parker when Parker's son suffered a life-threatening accident. "To see his son today is a miracle." Sanders, a member of the executive board of the Tri-County NAACP, said Parker had provided opportunity for many youth through scholarships he financed.
Sarah Hicks ,who works in Parker's business, said sending him to prison would doom the business and its seven employees. "He has a conscience that he listens to," she said. "The company needs Tony."
Most poignant, even for Mickle, was the testimony of Wesley Parker. He said while some folkd have to hunt for heroes, "All I have to do is walk down the hall to see mine: my father. I don't see how we can stand without him."
"If my dad left me I'd have to go to prison with him. I'd be better off behind bars than without him."
Wesley Parker said he knows Jesus Christ because of his father and "every day was a lesson for life."
He told the judge that when he had a hard time finding a job in the past year his father urged him to offer to work for free for prospective employers to show what he could do. "It's the reason I have a job now in Gainesville."
As Parker's son finished, Mickle asked, "Was your the letter the one that was single space and hard to read?"
"Yes," said Parker who earlier said he wrote the words over and over on a computer to get it right.
Mickle, who ears glasses, said even with bifocals he had to work to absorb it.