Jury finds suspended Lehigh fire commissioner guilty
A Lee County jury convicted a suspended Lehigh Acres fire commissioner Thursday.
After about an hour and a half of deliberations, a six-member jury found Robert John Anderson, 51, of 1147 Cherokee Ave., guilty of one count of larceny grand theft. He was charged in May 2016.
Following his conviction, Judge Ramiro Manalich immediately proceeded with the sentencing. Anderson received 60 days in jail, followed by two years of probation, among other terms.
He was taken into custody and transported to the Lee County Jail for booking.
In May 2016, six lawn mowers were donated to Habitat for Humanity in North Fort Myers by the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District. After the donation was made, Anderson contacted the organization and said he had spoken with the fire chief and the mowers were donated in error, which was false, according to officials. Anderson then fraudulently picked up five of the mowers under the guise that the mowers were to be refurbished and donated to families in need in the community.
The theft resulted in a loss of over $1,000 to Habitat for Humanity.
Assistant State Attorney Joshua Fredrickson said the state respected the sentencing.
“The state is appreciative of the jurors consideration of the case,” he said following the guilty conviction and sentencing. “And, obviously, we are satisfied that justice has been served.”
Assistant Public Defender Travis Cary represented Anderson in the case.
He declined to comment on the outcome Thursday, citing that it is against office policy.
During closing arguments, Fredrickson pointed to the evidence and testimony presented by the State Attorney’s Office; the defense chose not to present any evidence or case once the state had rested.
“The defendant deceived Habitat for Humanity. He defrauded them out of five John Deere riding lawn mowers in order to embarrass, in order to humiliate the Lehigh fire department,” he said. “Mr. Anderson views with contempt and disdain the leadership at the Lehigh Acres fire department.”
Fredrickson noted that Anderson’s story, as presented by witness testimony, changed frequently.
He called on the jury to look at the reliable evidence and use “common sense.”
In his closing argument, Cary called it a case of “who you know.”
He questioned the credibility of two among 11 of the state’s witnesses who took the stand during the trial, asking the jury to consider the individuals’ possible motives and question their statements.
“This case all comes down to an inner circle,” Cary said.
He argued that his client truly intended for the mowers to go to families in need.
“This was not a plan to embarrass the city of Lehigh Acres. This was a plan to keep the mowers in Lehigh Acres for his community,” Cary said.
Assistant State Attorney Tyler Lovejoy rebutted on behalf of the state, stating that there was no “inner circle” or conspiracy against Anderson. He said Anderson changed his story once he was in trouble.
“The only person who conspired was Robert Anderson,” Lovejoy said.
Prior to the closing arguments, Manalich addressed a motion for acquittal presented by Cary.
“The basis has to do with the valuation of the charge of theft in this case,” Manalich said.
Upon considering the motion and a case cited for the acquittal, along with the evidence and testimony presented by the State Attorney’s Office since the trial’s start on Wednesday, he denied the motion.
Anderson confirmed at the time that he would not be testifying.
In June, Anderson was charged in an unrelated incident with larceny grand theft $300 less than $5,000 and fraud swindle obtain property under $20,000. He is accused of fraudulently obtaining nearly $2,600 from a business that he provided technical support to and using the money to pay personal bills.
Anderson has also pleaded not guilty in the recent case.
He has a pretrial conference set for Dec. 19.
On July 26, Gov. Rick Scott suspended Anderson from his seat on the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District’s board. Anderson had won his seat on the fire board while facing the 2016 charge.
Florida law states that an official who has been suspended may not perform any official act, duty or function, nor receive any pay or allowance, nor be entitled to any emoluments or privileges.
If the official is convicted of the charge, the governor will remove him or her from office and the person appointed to the temporary vacancy shall serve out the remainder of the term, according to the law. If an official pleads guilty or no contest, he or she will be considered convicted of the charge.
In the case that the official is acquitted, found not guilty or otherwise cleared of the charge, the governor will revoke the suspension and restore the official to his or her office, the law states.