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New Charges in Bay County Corruption Probe; Commissioner Steps Down

Glenn Hess.jpg
Valerie Crowder
State Attorney for the 14th judicial circuit Glenn Hess speaks at a press conference at the Bay County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

A Bay County commissioner has resigned as a result of an ongoing investigation into public corruption.

Baker MugShot.jpg
Bay County Sheriff's Office
Former Bay County Commissioner Keith Baker was booked into the Bay County Jail on Tuesday morning for state felony charges related to fraud.

Former County Commissioner Keith Baker formally stepped down from his District 4 seat hours after his arrest on Tuesday morning. Baker is facing state felony charges of bid tampering, official misconduct and workman’s compensation fraud.

He’s currently being held in the Bay County Jail without bond. If convicted of all three charges, Baker could face up to 35 years in prison.

Baker’s arrest is part of a broad probe into misuse of public funds. The first round of charges came last winter, when two former Lynn Haven city officials were arrested.

Bay County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney’s Office are leading the ongoing corruption investigation, which began last spring.

The Florida Department of Financial Services and the State Attorney's Office also assisted in the investigation that led to Baker's arrest.

“We will not stop until we’ve rooted out the corruption in this community,” said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford. “Our overall investigation is still very active and ongoing.”

Baker, 54, was elected to the County Board of Commissioners almost two years ago. Before that, he was Panama City’s leisure services director for six years.

While in city government, Baker allegedly rigged a demolition bid process to benefit Erosion Control Specialists, a locally owned company that’s been a consistent target in the ongoing corruption probe.

The Bay County Sheriff’s Office released the following text message exchanges between Baker and ECS, which allegedly took place two years ago:

March 19, 2018

Baker: I’ve got a potential demo job for you.

ECS: What do you got?

Baker: Building on MLK. What is a typical sf price without asbestos? Mostly block construction. 1412 MLK Blvd.

April 25, 2018

Baker: I’ve got to get the three quotes.

(three hours later)

Baker: Need that text.

ECS: Greenleaf 22,500 ECS 15,000 Precision Construction 25,000.

Baker: How about $19,500 $14,750 and $18,000?

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford says it’s “significant” that Baker directed ECS to lower the bid amount to $14,750. “A bid of this amount could be approved by Baker alone and did not require Baker to present it before the city commission for approval.”

Ford says Baker also falsified a bid that was submitted on behalf of Precision Contractors. “The owner of that company had no knowledge that the bid had been submitted under his company’s name.”

Ford says law enforcement has no evidence that city officials knew about the alleged bid rigging when it was happening.

Seven months later, Baker’s company, Tri-State Climate Solutions, LLC, received $150,000 from ECS for hurricane cleanup work that lasted about five to six weeks. Ford says there’s no indication at this time that the payment was a kickback for the city demolition contract.

After news of Baker’s arrest broke, Panama City City Manager Mark McQueen, who entered local government months after the alleged fraud occurred, issued a statement, expressing disappointment in the abuse of power. “There is nothing more important than citizens having trust and confidence in their local government.”

Baker was also arrested for failing to pay workman’s compensation when his company was hired to do hurricane cleanup.

Three other people who subcontracted under ECS for cleanup and debris removal are facing workman’s compensation fraud charges. They include: Gregory Wilson, 48, of Panama City, Dennis Morin, 56 of Fountain and John David Russell, 31, of Eclectic, Alabama.

“There has been an undercurrent of corruption in Bay County for a long time,” said Glenn Hess, state attorney for the 14th judicial circuit. “The winds of Hurricane Michael laid it out so it could be seen.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.