The second day of Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely's trial began much like the first, with a hearing before 9 a.m. about whether to dismiss part of the indictment.
This time, however, the defense sought to dismiss only one of the 11 counts in the indictment, as well as strike related testimony and documents. The charge in question involved Trent Willis of Red Brick Strategies and an alleged theft of $4,000 in campaign funds.
As on Monday, the motion to dismiss was ultimately denied. Willis, who had taken the stand Monday afternoon but had to pause partway through his testimony, was brought back in Tuesday morning to continue.
He confirmed for the court that he had been made aware of an investigation by the Alabama attorney general's office, though he couldn't say what the investigation was about. Defense attorneys asked if he was aware that it might be related to allegations that Willis had mishandled or stolen thousands of dollars in campaign funds for other candidates, but Willis denied knowing anything about it.
As for Blakely's campaign, Willis testified Tuesday that he remembered meeting with Blakely and Athens attorney John Plunk at a local restaurant to discuss RBS working with the Blakely campaign, but he did not remember ever having a written contract.
That said, Willis said he did request any payments for services not be made by the Blakely campaign because Blakely was running as a Democrat. Willis said RBS largely represents Republicans.
While Willis may have remembered the restaurant meeting and payment arrangements, Plunk's memory seemed to be less certain.
He testified Tuesday that he has supported Blakely "every time he's run" and "may have" recommended RBS to other candidates after seeing Willis' work on other campaigns, but he did not recall meeting at the restaurant or specifically introducing Blakely to Willis.
He also didn't remember agreeing to pay $3,500 a month or making payments on behalf of Blakely or his campaign — even after presented with a copy of the email discussing the arrangement, monthly invoices for services and copies of the checks made for the same amount mentioned in the email and invoices.
"It's been seven years ago. Sorry," he told the court.
He noted some of the checks were made from an account for Emm-Dee Drug Co Inc., his father-in-law's company, and that none of the checks or invoices mentioned specific services or candidates. He also noted he was supporting two other candidates at the time in addition to Blakely.
Plunk's office is on The Square, near the Limestone County Courthouse, and attorneys asked about signs of support for Blakely that had been placed at the building. Plunk testified he had "no objection to them whatsoever" and agreed with the signs, but that he did not order, make or post them himself.
He said they were made in his father-in-law's office, one of several office spaces in the building.
In addition to practicing law in Athens, Plunk is currently a member of the Alabama Ethics Commission, serving a four-year term that ends next month. Cynthia Raulston, general counsel for the Ethics Commission, said a complaint was filed against Blakely and investigated by the Ethics Commission.
Raulston testified to the process used by the Ethics Commission, which involves a review of the complaint, an investigation into the complaint if needed, then a vote by commissioners on whether to dismiss the complaint, charge a fine or other administrative penalty, or refer the complaint to another agency.
Plunk said he recused himself from voting on the Blakely complaint, which Raulston testified was brought to vote Oct. 3, 2018, then referred to the AG's office.
Blakely faces multiple charges for ethics violations, including an allegation that he used his official position or office for personal gain by having a Limestone County Sheriff's Office employee wire him $1,000 while he was at a casino in Las Vegas.
That employee, Ramona Robinson, now works for the Limestone County Commission, but she visited the courthouse Tuesday to provide her side of the events related to the ethics charge.
Robinson explained that her job as LCSO's jail clerk included keeping records of the funds that inmates had to spend at vending machines or on commissary items. She clarified the safe in her office only held inmate funds and that anywhere between a few thousand and more than $10,000 could be in the safe at any given time.
She also testified that, on occasion, employees would come to her with personal checks that they wanted to cash using the funds inside the safe. Robinson said most of the checks were for between $10 and $60, but there would be times when Blakely would ask her for a few hundred dollars or more.
Robinson said she never asked why Blakely was getting the money from the inmate safe instead of the law enforcement funds or other means, why she needed to wait to cash a check or what he was spending the inmate funds on. This included not asking questions when Blakely called and asked her to get $1,000 from the inmate safe and wire it to him at Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas. She said Blakely paid it back when he returned from the trip, but she didn't know how long it took for him to do so.
Robinson testified that she tracked how much Blakely took at any given time by keeping handwritten IOUs in the safe with his call number and the amount. She said the practice was discovered during an audit, at which point the auditor told her "it was a no-no."
She said she never felt threatened by Blakely or that her job might be in danger, but she did worry about causing him to bounce a check by cashing it before he said it was OK and eventually left the LCSO job in part because of the check-cashing routine.
"I don't know how to describe it," she said. "... I just didn't like it."
Court to resume Wednesday
Blakely's trial is set to continue 9 a.m. today in the Limestone County Courthouse. The News Courier will have additional coverage throughout the week.