ATHENS, Ala. – Tuesday marked the second full day of testimony in Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely’s theft and ethics trial.
The defense says no money is missing and Blakely never had any intention of deceiving anyone, but in court, it’s been the state’s version of events so far. The defense still has the opportunity to put on its case. However, the picture painted by the prosecution’s evidence shows the sheriff moving campaign money into personal accounts and later putting that money back after he was advised of an ethics probe.
The day started with a sharp dispute between the prosecution and defense over whether prosecutors failed to disclose that a key state witness was under investigation by the attorney general’s office.
The witness, Trent Willis, ran Red Brick Strategies, a Huntsville-based political consulting firm. Prosecutors said Blakely took a $4,000 check from Willis in 2014, as part of a kickback scheme.
The defense argued a theft charge related to that check should be dismissed because prosecutors failed to disclose Willis’ legal troubles in an unrelated investigation.
The state insisted they told a defense attorney last year about the investigation, but the assistant attorney general who made that claim admitted he didn’t send anything in writing because he didn’t trust the defense.
The judge rejected the motion to dismiss, and Willis was allowed to continue testifying on Tuesday.
Willis’ testimony Monday included his claim that he gave Blakely a $4,000 check and didn’t know what he used it for. The defense pushed hard to discredit Willis Tuesday, asking if he was aware he was accused of stealing $100,000 from State Rep. Ritchie Whorton’s campaign fund and leaving the campaign with $30,000 in unpaid bills. Willis denied any wrongdoing.
Attorney John Plunk, a Blakely supporter, was asked about a series of checks he wrote in 2014, that invoices show were for political consulting for Blakely. Plunk, who said he couldn’t remember what the checks were for, serves on the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Prosecutors also introduced evidence that showed Blakely wrote checks to his campaign account in 2018, after receiving a letter about an ethics investigation. He was apparently paying back campaign funds that had been received months and, in some cases, years earlier, but not disclose until 2018, prosecutors pointed out.
Tuesday afternoon a former sheriff’s office employee testified that she allowed Blakely to take inmate funds from a jail safe with only an IOU to cover it on multiple occasions.
Romona Robinson worked as the inmate account clerk for several years. She testified that the safe holding inmates’ money had anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000 cash in it at a time.
She explained employees at the sheriff’s office would use the funds to cash checks, even herself from time to time.
But the sheriff was the only person who took money, saying he would borrow money in amounts ranging as high as $300 to $600. Robinson explained she never asked the sheriff why he needed the cash and she replaced the money with an IOU until he repaid it.
She also recounted two instances where she sent money via wire transfer to the sheriff at the Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas. She says he told her he was in the city for conferences.
Robinson said the sheriff would write personal checks for the money he took, but sometimes he’d ask her to hold off on depositing the checks without giving a reason.
After being pressed by the prosecution, Robinson said she would’ve worried about her job if she caused the sheriff to bounce a check.
Robinson explained that she kept a record of inmate funds from the safe using QuickBooks. She said she did not record the IOU’s in Quickbooks and there were times when the amount of money recorded in the software and the money in the safe did not match.
She told the court state auditors checked the safe and record books twice while she worked there over the years. There was never any money missing. However, an auditor did find one of the sheriff’s IOU’s and told her that was “a no-no”, but the trend of issuing the sheriff IOU’s continued.
Robinson told the court she left her job at the sheriff’s office for an opportunity for more pay somewhere else, but the checks had something to do with her leaving. She struggled to explain her reasoning behind that statement, and concluded simply by saying that she didn’t like it.
A special investigator at the AG’s office later testified that there were 19 checks Robinson held for the sheriff that would’ve bounced if they were cashed before Blakely told her it was OK to take them to the bank.
Agent Louis Wilson says he investigated Blakely’s financial records. He testified that Blakely moved campaign checks, to his personal accounts on four occasions. Each time, without those checks, he would have been overdrawn.
The defense said it was only an assumption that the accounts would have been overdrawn, they said investigators didn’t know if Blakely had cash at his house.
Blakely’s defense said during opening statements that no money was missing. Wilson said in court Tuesday it’s not true that there isn’t money missing from the campaign account.
The trial will resume Wednesday morning. The prosecution will continue to make its case and call witnesses.