Stephen Kunz, a lead prosecutor in Tallahassee's public corruption cases, retires

Stephen Kunz, one of the lead prosecutors in the public corruption cases against former Tallahassee Mayors Andrew Gillum and Scott Maddox, has retired after a decades-long and at times controversial career.

Kunz, who served as assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Florida following other assignments elsewhere, stepped down at the end of 2022. His retirement surfaced in court documents in an explosive Lynn Haven corruption case marked by accusations from the defense of government wrongdoing.

He played a key role in the prosecution of all five people charged thus far in Operation Capital Currency, the FBI probe that saw undercover agents posing as crooked developers penetrate the dark side of Tallahassee’s political scene.

In 2017, Kunz’s name appeared on the first federal grand jury subpoenas in the investigation at City Hall. In 2021, he delivered opening statements in the bribery trial of Maddox co-defendant John “J.T.” Burnette, summing up both the case and white-collar crime in general.

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Stephen Kunz, attorney for the prosecution, questioned Charles Simon who was helping with a possible sale involving the DoubleTree Hotel at the trial of J.T. Burnette on Thursday, July 15, 2021.
Stephen Kunz, attorney for the prosecution, questioned Charles Simon who was helping with a possible sale involving the DoubleTree Hotel at the trial of J.T. Burnette on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a case about corruption in the city of Tallahassee,” he said. “The motivation of the corrupt activity is something as old as man has been on Earth: Greed. Pure, unadulterated desire for money.”

Kunz and fellow prosecutors scored convictions against the first three defendants charged in the investigation: Maddox and his aide Paige Carter-Smith, who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in 2018, and Burnette, who was found guilty at trial. All three were sentenced to federal prison.

The government has had a far rockier time in its prosecution of former Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson and others on public corruption charges involving hurricane recovery funds and other matters. Numerous counts have been tossed in the case amid a string of faulty indictments and accusations by the defense of misconduct by Kunz and a now-retired FBI agent. Among other things, the defense alleged Kunz misled the federal grand jury and improperly pressured witnesses.

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In June, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the government’s “reckless, haphazard approach” in the case was “testing this court’s patience” and warned that prosecutors were approaching a point in which the defendants would be so prejudiced that he would have “no choice but to dismiss the indictment.” Last month, Walker asked the defense to identify all “bad acts” and alternative sanctions besides dismissal in case he decides not to take that step.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment on Kunz’s retirement. However, the defense in the Lynn Haven case mentioned it in recent court filings, which prompted a response from federal prosecutors in a Friday motion that included confirmation of his retirement.

“AUSA Kunz retired at the end of 2022 after 46 years of service as a state and federal prosecutor, which retirement had been long planned for many months for reasons unrelated to this case,” prosecutors wrote.

The government motion noted that a retirement event was planned for Kunz and that invitations were sent to a number of local criminal defense lawyers. It also accused the defense of trying to “generally put the investigation and prosecution on trial, including purposefully smearing the former, retired lead prosecutor and the former, retired case agent before the trial jury.”

Kunz, a 1976 graduate of New York Law School, joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida in 2002 as an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division. He served in several important positions, including anti-terrorism coordinator, senior litigation counsel and chief of the criminal division.

Before that, he worked as a federal prosecutor and supervisor in the Middle District of Florida, where his cases included the 1997 disappearance of toddler Sabrina Aisenberg. Kunz went after the parents, wrongly asserting they could be heard incriminating themselves in secretly recorded conversations that proved largely inaudible.

The government dropped all charges and was later ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in attorney fees. Kunz, given the option of working only on civil cases or finding a job elsewhere, quit and landed in Tallahassee. The Florida Bar admonished him for his conduct in the case, which defense lawyers in Lynn Haven have cited in their motions.

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Kunz’s departure means he will not be in the courtroom when the Gillum case is finally resolved. Gillum, a Democrat who narrowly lost the 2018 race for Florida governor, and his co-defendant, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, are set to go on trial in April on charges that they illegally diverted campaign donations to the former mayor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Grogan, who served as lead with Kunz in the Gillum case, is expected to continue handling the prosecution along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Milligan.

Stephen Webster, a Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer who represented Carter-Smith, said he always appreciated Kunz's courteousness and kindness in their interactions.

"Working as a prosecutor — it's a tough business," Webster said. "And obviously the stakes are always high. But in my dealings with Mr. Kunz, he was always extremely professional and a very effective advocate."

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Contact Jeff Burlew at and follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Stephen Kunz, prosecutor in Tallahassee's public corruption cases, retires