July 21 – ATHENS – Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely would regularly ask his prison clerk to give him money from a safe containing inmate funds ranging from $ 300 to $ 600 and she was placing IOUs on Post-It notes showing amounts owed, she testified in Blakely’s public corruption trial on Tuesday.
Former prison clerk Ramona Robinson said she kept $ 100 bills in the safe so they were available for her requests, and that she would cash small checks for other employees, but that she was only using the IOU system for the sheriff. Blakely periodically replaced IOUs with a personal check, but frequently told her not to deposit the check until a later date, she said.
Another prosecution witness said Blakely would have overdrawn his personal checking account if 19 of those checks – totaling $ 29,050 – had been cashed when they were issued, and the checks had been held without being deposited until. ‘to 66 days.
Robinson said she feared she would lose her job if she did not delay filing one of Blakely’s checks as requested, and said she quit her job at the sheriff’s office in part because of his concerns about Blakely’s use of inmate funds.
“I just didn’t like it,” she said.
The testimony came on the seventh day of a trial in which the 10-term sheriff is charged with 11 counts of theft and ethics violations.
Ahead of the jury’s appearance on Tuesday, there was a heated debate between defense lawyers and prosecutors. The dispute arose out of a defense motion to strike the testimony of a key witness in the Attorney General’s office, Trent Willis of Red Brick Strategies in Huntsville.
Willis, whose company was providing policy advice for Blakely’s campaign in 2014, said on Monday he repaid an overpayment from Blakely’s campaign committee by giving Blakely a blank check, which he said that Blakely had made for $ 4,000. Willis said he did it on Blakely’s instructions. Blakely’s campaign treasurer testified that he previously issued a check for $ 7,500 to Red Brick at Blakely’s request, and bank statements show the sheriff deposited the refund into his personal account.
Willis is under investigation by other divisions of the Attorney General’s office, and prosecutors in the Blakely case – members of the public corruption unit – said they were unaware he was under investigation until the defense warned them.
In a brief hearing before the jury entered the courtroom, Assistant Attorney General Jasper Roberts said after being alerted to the issue by the defense, he discovered an investigation was underway on Willis involving campaign contributions managed by a different division, but Willis had not been informed that he was under investigation. Roberts said he called a member of the defense team in early 2020 to provide him with this information.
When asked why he hadn’t confirmed the conversation in writing, Roberts sparked numerous objections with his response: “Because I didn’t trust the defense attorney.” He said he was concerned the Blakely defense team would interfere with the separate investigation into Willis.
Blakely’s lead attorney Robert Tuten argued Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris attempted to sandbag the defense while waiting for it to complete Willis’ examination-in-chief before advising the judge that Willis was under investigation and should be made aware of his right to remain silent rather than incriminate himself.
Retired Judge Pamela Baschab, who is presiding over the case, dismissed the defense motion to strike one of the counts of theft and strike Willis’ testimony, and allowed Willis to continue to bear witness.
On cross-examination, Willis denied a long list of defense allegations, ranging from the theft of campaign funds from a state official to the campaign firing of Tommy Battle’s Huntsville mayor for having connections inappropriate sex with an anonymous person.
“We support Mike”
During opening statements Friday, prosecutors alluded to the difficulty of proving a case against Blakely when most of the witnesses were his friends or associates. This difficulty became evident on Tuesday during the examination-in-chief of John Plunk, an attorney from Athens. Plunk is also vice chairman of the Alabama Ethics Commission and recused himself from the commission’s October 2018 decision to refer the Blakely case to the attorney general’s office.
According to an email between Plunk and Willis, they came to an agreement that Plunk would pay Red Brick $ 3,500 per month to help with Blakely’s re-election campaign for the six months ending in November 2014. In the e-mail, Willis describes the terms of the agreement and asks if this is acceptable, and Plunk responds “Yes”. That same day, according to bank statements, Plunk made the first payment of $ 3,500. Either Plunk or the parent company of Athens Pharmacy – owned by his stepfather – paid $ 3,500 each month thereafter in response to Red Brick’s bills.
The issue is important to the prosecution because Red Brick billed Plunk for the final payment of $ 3,500, but instead of receiving that payment, she received the payment of $ 7,500 from Blakely’s campaign committee. The prosecution theory is that Blakely wanted the overpayment to be part of an arrangement that allowed him to pocket the reimbursement of $ 4,000.
Plunk, however, said he didn’t remember any arrangement with Willis and didn’t remember Willis’s email confirming it. He said he had no control over his stepfather’s business and was unsure why he made some of the $ 3,500 payments. He also said he had no involvement in a sign that was in his office window on Tuesday saying “We support Mike”, although he said he agreed.
“We are good friends. I support him,” Plunk told the prosecutor.
In cross-examination, defense attorney asked if Plunk had ever known that Blakely was dishonest. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Not in 40 years.” Plunk shook hands with Blakely as he left the witness stand.
Much of Tuesday’s testimony involved reviewing Blakely’s personal banking records. Special Agent Louie Wilson of the Attorney General’s Office, an expert in financial crimes, testified that any time Blakely deposited campaign money into his personal account, his personal account would have been overdrawn without the deposit. This was the case, according to prosecutors, when he deposited a PAC check from Alabama Realtors for $ 1,500, a contribution of $ 2,500 from Austin Hinds Motors and the reimbursement of $ 4,000 from Red Brick Strategies.
This was also the case when he told his prison clerk not to deposit the checks he gave him to reimburse the money withdrawn from the safe inmates funds, Wilson said.
Wilson said this was no longer the case after July 18, 2016, when Blakely deposited $ 966,000 into his personal account. A question from one of Blakely’s attorneys suggested that this amount came from winning the lottery. On May 31, 2018, Blakely amended its 2016 Alabama Ethics Commission Declaration of Economic Interests to report “over $ 250,000” in family income from “TN lottery and gaming establishments.”
Wilson also said he saw evidence of “structuring,” which he said was an attempt to avoid the federal requirement that banks file a report when more than $ 10,000 in cash is deposited at a time. . Blakely made three deposits to his personal account, each slightly less than $ 10,000, over two days, according to bank statements. Cash deposits on June 30 and July 1, 2014 totaled $ 26,000. A Bank Independent teller issued a “suspicious activity report” when Blakely made the first drive-thru deposit. The cashier, according to the report, informed him that he had given him $ 10,500. Blakely had his return of $ 1,000, so the deposit was $ 9,500, according to the report.
A question from a lawyer on cross-examination indicated that Blakely was accumulating this money so that it could repay an accidental overpayment of Blakely’s salary. During opening statements, prosecutors said Blakely borrowed $ 30,000 from someone called “Tall Paul” to pay off the county. There was no testimony about the loan or whether it was in cash.
Also on Tuesday, an investigator from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Office of Inspector General said TVA issued a check for $ 1,000 for damage to the Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo Arena during transmission line upgrades. . The check was issued in September 2013 and made payable to “Mike Blakely, Limestone County Sheriff,” and the investigator said he expected it to be deposited with the owner of the ‘arena, Sheriff’s Reserve Inc. Instead, according to bank records, it was deposited the same day into Blakely’s personal account.
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