The first day of testimony in Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely’s criminal trial focused primarily on the four charges of theft against the Sheriff.
Judge Pamela Baschab had told everyone in the courtroom on Friday that the trial would resume at 9 a.m. on Monday. However, after defense lawyers filed a motion on Sunday to dismiss the four charges of theft, Baschab held a hearing before 9 a.m. that morning.
Blakely is accused of taking money intended for his campaign account. Defense lawyers said the charges should be dismissed on the grounds that the funds could be used “for the benefit … of an individual elected official”, that Blakely is considered an “owner” of the property because he is on the committee. campaign and that the state legislature never intended to use property theft charges for violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
As for the prosecution, lawyers filed a response on Monday morning, claiming that simply having access to funds does not give them permission to take it and noting that it is too late to file such a request. .
Baschab ultimately rejected the defense request.
The testimony begins
Jurors heard from seven witnesses on Monday, each discussing documents related to one of the four thefts, while some shared testimony related to their work with the sheriff and his campaigns. Many provided basic explanations related to their work – what certain financial records are used for, how campaign finances are handled, and how campaign donations were decided.
Joyce Varnell, who works with the Athens-Limestone Estate Agents Association, explained the process by which the local organization applies for funding to support a political candidate for the organization at the state level. She testified that part of the process is contacting the campaign to make sure the check will be filled out correctly.
For Blakely’s campaign, Varnell said, she’s only ever spoken to with Blakely. She said Blakely never told her to fill out the check to “Friends of Mike Blakely”, the name of her campaign committee, but rather to put her name on it. She testified that the association made donations to the campaign on several occasions but never gave to Blakely in a personal capacity.
A check for $ 1,500 was presented after the 2014 election ended, during a 120-day period in which candidates can raise funds to pay off campaign debt. Blakely is accused of taking the check from the Realtors group and cashing it into his personal account, which other witnesses have repeatedly said to be illegal and contrary to the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
Expert in electoral law
Among those who testified to the illegality of cashing campaign checks into a personal account was Clay Helms, the chief electoral officer in the Alabama secretary of state’s office. After sharing his experience with campaigns and elections, he was identified as an expert witness in electoral law.
Helms reviewed the laws regarding how campaigns can spend money, raise money, keep track of funds raised or spent, and when they should. He said personal and campaign accounts should be kept separate because that is “the only way to stay above the law, above the board and transparent.”
While funds deposited into the campaign account can be used to reimburse a candidate for spending personal funds on election-related items, campaign donations cannot be spent on personal expenses, he said. declared. There should also be regular and accurate reports detailing how much money is coming into or going out of a campaign account and why.
The “goal, at the end of the day, is transparency,” Helms said, noting that members of the media, the public and the opposition often scrutinize the reports to determine who is supporting a particular candidate and how much money they are spending on it. show said support. After an election, the remaining funds can be used for specific purposes, such as reimbursing donors or purchasing office equipment if they are elected, Helms said. As with funds raised or spent before the election, they should be included in the campaign fundraising report.
Helms reviewed documents related to the year in which Blakely received $ 1,500 from the Realtors organization while at the helm on Monday. He noted that a payment of $ 1,500 from the campaign account had been made to Blakely and included in the report, but that there was no mention of the donation of $ 1,500.
“I don’t remember everything”
When some witnesses clearly remembered their interactions and others had no interaction, some struggled to remember what might or might not have happened.
This was the case for Austin Hinds, who told jurors he met Blakely through a mutual friend at least 20 years ago. He said he got a reserve MP card from Blakely at some point during their friendship, but never worked or volunteered for the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office.
When questioned by prosecutors, Hinds recalled a loan of $ 7,500 to Blakely and said he “could” have lent $ 4,500 as well, but he could not remember. Assistant AG Clark Morris offered to let him refresh his memory by reading his testimony in front of the grand jury, but after it was brought to him, Hinds admitted that he did not have his glasses and that he therefore could not read it.
When asked why he could have loaned Blakely several thousand dollars, Hinds replied, “I can’t remember everything” and that he had “no idea” what it was for. He then said that it “may have been” for horses, but he did not document it.
He identified a check filled out by his daughter in November 2017 for $ 2,500. He said he did not recall receiving a receipt for the organization because he had never requested one. He said it was possible he had given to Blakely’s campaign more than once in the past, but the donation of $ 2,500 is the only one he remembers.
After being excused as a witness, Hinds stood up and wished Blakely “luck” before stepping down from the stand. Blakely is accused of stealing the check for $ 2,500 by depositing it in his personal account instead of the campaign account.
Among the longest testimonials given on Monday was that of Blakely’s campaign finance director Thomas Watkins, who began by sharing that he was the third in his family to take on the role.
Watkins said he lived in Limestone County and still had a house here, but mostly lived a few hours away in Clay County. He told the court that during election cycles he could go once a week to once every two months to collect campaign donations.
He said he used the information he got from Blakely to supplement campaign fundraising reports. He testified that he was never aware of a donation of $ 1,500 from the Realtors association in 2014, but recognized a written check from the campaign account to Blakely for “gas, oil, transportation and reimbursement.”
He explained that refunds were usually given after receiving an envelope of receipts from Blakely so Watkins could report what Blakely was being refunded for.
As for Hinds, Watkins recalls learning in February 2018 that Blakely’s campaign received $ 2,500 in cash from Hinds. Watkins said Blakely gave him a check for the same amount to deposit in the bank, which is why the donation is listed for this month. He told the court he didn’t know Blakely had received a check for $ 2,500 from Hinds months before, otherwise he would have put it on that month’s report instead.
Blakely is also accused of accepting $ 3,000 from the campaign account to attend a campaign training event in Washington, DC, but never actually attended. Watkins said he remembers donating the funds, but not why Blakely was not present or why it took Blakely so long to return the money.
In reviewing this year’s annual report, Watkins noted an expense of $ 3,000 for Red Brick Strategies and no mention of the $ 3,000 expense for Blakely’s planned trip. Prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned the accuracy of his reports, to which Watkins admitted that it was possible that his own personal issues that year led to an error in his report.
When it comes to RBS, Watkins has made no secret of his opinion that the company has done “very little” for the campaign. He said he had never discussed RBS with John Plunk, who allegedly paid RBS for the first months of service for Blakely’s campaign, and he was unsure if Plunk was overcharged.
What he did know was that he gave Blakely a signed but otherwise blank check, which was then filled out by Blakely for $ 7,500 to RBS. Watkins testified that it was not something he did often and that he only knew the amount of the campaign return because Blakely told him.
Evidence shows that a second check for $ 4,000 was made out to Blakely from the RBS account and later deposited into Blakely’s personal account. Watkins said he didn’t recognize the second check but believed that if it was truly an overload refund it should have gone through it and included in the campaign fundraising report.
The court resumes today
The seventh witness called to testify on Monday was RBS’s Trent Willis. His testimony was interrupted Monday afternoon but is expected to resume Tuesday morning.
The News Courier will have additional coverage of Blakely’s trial throughout the week.