ATHENS, Ala. – The opening statements Friday morning by the prosecution and defense offered two entirely different pictures of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
Prosecutors described a financially desperate Blakely moving campaign donations into his personal bank account to avoid overdrafts and taking $29,000 from jail inmate accounts for personal use and waiting nearly a year to pay the money back.
Defense attorney Robert Tuten said Blakely – who has been elected sheriff 10 times – clearly wouldn’t have kept his job this long without knowing how to run a sheriff’s office and that no money was missing. Tuten said there is a simple and logical explanation for each of the 11 charges Blakely faces.
Tuten told the jury repeatedly Friday morning, “If there is no criminal intent, there is no crime.”
After four days of questioning jurors, lawyers for the defense and prosecution picked a jury this morning. 15 people were selected, including three alternates. The panel is composed of 12 women and three men.
The trial will resume Monday with the first witnesses being called.
Kyle Beckman, an Alabama assistant attorney general, gave the prosecution’s opening statement. Beckman said the charges against Blakely stem from Alabama’s ethics laws governing elected officials and its law governing theft.
Blakely is facing five ethics charges including:
- Four charges stemming from using his office for personal gain.
- One count of using his position to solicit a thing of value from a subordinate.
He also faces six theft charges, including theft of campaign funds and taking money held by the sheriff’s office.
Beckman argued that Blakely not only converted the campaign money to personal use, he also didn’t disclose the campaign donations on required state disclosure forms.
Beckman outlined three instances where the state claims Blakely was given checks intended for his campaign account, but he instead deposited the money in his personal account at another bank. The prosecution says the checks were for $1,500 from the Alabama Realtors Association in December 2014, $2,500 from Austin Hinds Motors in November 2017 and in a complicated series of transactions they say Blakely ultimately took $4,000 back from a campaign consulting firm in November 2016. The deposit of that check, the prosecution says, prevented Blakely from being overdrawn by nearly $2,500. In each case, they say, Blakely’s bank account was overdrawn or about to be overdrawn without those deposits.
The prosecution also contends Blakely got a check for $3,000 from his campaign with a stated plan to use the money for an elected officials’ seminar in Washington, D.C., but he never made the trip and deposited the money in his own account. Prosecutors say without that deposit, Blakely’s account would have been overdrawn by more than $2,100.
Beckman said Blakely didn’t repay the campaign account until three and a half years later.
In his opening statement, Tuten didn’t offer an extended defense of each count but said witnesses, including Blakely, would be able to offer clear, logical explanations for each transaction.
He said business trips taken by Blakely to Biloxi and Las Vegas were that were cited by the prosecution were not crimes. Prosecutors pointed to the trips as instances where Blakely asked sheriff’s office employees to wire him money, either from sheriff’s office accounts or an employee’s personal account.
Tuten argued the additional requests for money were the result of misjudgments about the costs of traveling to the locations. He said Blakely does not fly and with gas and lodging costs, the initial per diem amounts he was given for travel costs were insufficient, so he had to have money wired to him.
One of the charges is that Blakely asked a longtime sheriff’s office employee to wire him $1,000 from her bank account. The state says that was an improper use of office, soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate. But Tuten argued the employee and Blakely are longtime friends and it had nothing to do with her role as an employee.
Tuten said there were instances of campaign miscommunication and some records have been damaged by a sewage spill at a campaign treasurer’s home, but he said all the accounts are balanced and there was no effort on Blakely’s part to deceive anyone.
The prosecution also alleged that from April 2013 to June 2016, Blakely routinely borrowed Limestone County Jail inmates’ money that was kept in a safe. They contend that over a period of time Blakely would ask a sheriff’s office employee who was responsible for monitoring the money to take cash from the safe and give it to him.
The prosecution says Blakely didn’t pay back the money immediately but would write checks to cover the amounts. The checks were kept on hand, not deposited, prosecutors said, even though the employee routinely went to the bank. The prosecution says at one point, there were 19 checks covering the cash payments to Blakely and he was floated $29,050 for 271 days, before it was settled.
The last charge detailed by prosecutors is especially complicated. It involves a company that wanted to sell arms to Taiwan and inmate labor.
For 18 months beginning in January 2013, through no fault of his own, Blakely’s salary was overpaid by Limestone County. When it was discovered by a routine audit, he owed $27,000.
The prosecution says Blakely planned to sell a home that belonged to his parents and could use part of that money to repay the $27,000 he was overpaid. But the sale stalled, prosecutors contend, and Blakely borrowed the money from another friend.
They say Blakely’s realtor was also part of a business that was interested in selling weapons to Taiwan. The business, HIGO, believed it needed a lead-lined room to ensure communications were secure. But they couldn’t find workers to do the lead work.
The prosecution says Blakely grew increasingly concerned about repaying the $27,000 to his friend, but the home sale was taking time. Eventually, the prosecution says Blakely met with a HIGO top executive. The prosecution says Blakely got $50,000 from a HIGO official that he could use to pay back the $27,000.
Blakely then recruited three inmates, included a convicted murderer, prosecutors say, to do the two-month lead work project.
Tuten argued that while house sale took some time, Blakely repaid the money. Tuten said Blakely will testify and explain why he thought it made sense to pay the money back in a lump sum.
More than 40 witnesses are expected to be called in this case.