Updated 9/30: Little more than a month before he was set to vie for re-election, state Rep. Reggie Fullwood pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts in a federal indictment.
The guilty plea makes Fullwood (D-Jacksonville), ineligible to serve in the Legislature and will force his party to find a replacement candidate for the Nov. 8elections.
Fullwood's attorney, Robert Willis, said the lawmaker pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of failure to file an income tax return. The other 12 counts of the indictment, which was unsealed in April, will be dismissed as part of an agreement with prosecutors. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 9.
The maximum sentence for each count of wire fraud is 20 years, with one year the maximum term for the tax return charge. Prosecutors will likely recommend a sentence toward the lower end of the guidelines in return for Fullwood pleading guilty. The lawmaker will also forfeit more than $60,000 as part of the agreement, Willis said.
Fullwood's trial was set to begin Oct. 11.
Under the original indictment, he faced a maximum of more than 200 years in federal prison, though as a practical matter first-time offenders rarely face anything like the maximum sentence.
The plea deal came less than a month after Fullwood narrowly beat back a primary challenge from Tracie Davis, who lost to Fullwood by less than 3 percentage points. He was set to take on Republican Mark Griffin in the general election in Duval County's House District 13.
Democratic Party leaders will select a replacement candidate for the November vote.
According to the indictment, from at least September 2010 to about December 2011, Fullwood electronically transferred money from the "Reggie Fullwood Campaign" bank account to an account of a Fullwood-owned entity called Rhino Harbor, LLC. Prosecutors said he used the money for personal use at grocery, jewelry and liquor stores.
To conceal the embezzlement of campaign funds, the indictment alleged that Fullwood submitted fraudulent campaign expenditure reports to the state.
Florida law requires state candidates' campaign accounts to be separate from personal accounts. The campaign money also may not be used to defray normal living expenses, other than for transportation, meals, and lodging that is campaign-related.
Fullwood, 41, was first elected to the House in 2010 and was re-elected without oppositionÂ in 2012. He served as Democratic deputy whip from 2012 to 2014.
His time in the House was interrupted in 2014 when his seat became vacant after paperwork errors prevented him from qualifying for the ballot. Fullwood returned to the House in February 2015 after winning a special election.
The original story posted 9/29 is below:
State Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville) is pleading guilty to two federal charges against him at a Thursday afternoon hearing, as our partner News4Jax reported.
Judge Marcia Morales Howard, who is presiding over a hastily scheduled hearing, asked Fullwood if he understands that by entering a guilty plea, he admits to the truth of the charges and waives his rights to a trial. He would also lose his right to vote and hold public office.
Asked by the judge it was his signature on the plea agreement, Fullwood answered, "Yes ma'am."
Fullwood narrowly won a six-way Democratic primary last month for a fourth term representing District 13 and was scheduled to face Republican Christian Whitfield in the general election. News4Jax was told the Democratic Party could offer a replacement candidate, but it is too late for that name to appear on the ballot.
Fullwood was indicted earlier this year on 14 counts of wire fraud and tax evasion related to diverting contributions to his re-election campaign for his own personal use, including purchases of jewelry, alcohol and flowers.
Fullwood's defense had argued that while the diversion would violate state law, the diversion does not threaten the contributors’ property interest, and so they are not victims of fraud. In Florida’s election code, once funds are given to a candidate, the contributor loses any property interest and thus any control of those funds.
But Morales Howard refused to dismiss the case, saying it was not what Fullwood did with the money, but how he obtained it that might be illegal. She said there is an argument that the money was fraudulently solicited, so the argument to dismiss the charges could not be supported.
Fullwood faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, although the government will likely recommend a lesser sentence in light of his guilty plea. Fullwood could also be asked to pay restitution for the campaign money that was used for his personal benefit.
Fullwood's trial on the charges was scheduled for Oct. 11, four weeks before he was to run for re-election.