Mike Blakely, who has served as Limestone County's sheriff since 1982, was indicted Thursday by the Alabama Attorney General's Office on 13 counts of theft and ethics charges.
Blakely, 68, was elected to his 10th term in November. Shortly after his victory, he claimed it would be his last term.
The indictment covers “a range of conduct over multiple years.” He surrendered to authorities, was booked into his own jail and was released on a $49,000 bond.
An attorney representing Blakely said his client would remain in office, despite the indictment.
Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel of McDaniel and McDaniel said Blakely had no plans to resign his seat and would plead not guilty to all 13 counts levied against him.
In a press conference Thursday, Sheriff's Office spokesman Stephen Young said the sheriff would keep his “open-door policy” for any member of the public with a concern.
Young reminded the media the indictment was not equal to a conviction, and added Blakely had once told him “You can indict a ham sandwich.”
He wanted the community to know the Sheriff's Office would continue to “proudly serve the great people” of Limestone County.
“We aren't perfect. We're human like all of you,” Young said. “... We remain united in our mission to serve you and we will continue to do so come hell or high water.”
A call seeking comment from Blakely was not immediately returned Thursday.
Limestone County Commission Chairman Collin Daly issued a statement Thursday that said he would not comment on the indictment.
"The main concern of the Commission is the safety of the county,” the statement said. “The Commission has the utmost confidence in our Sheriff's Department, that they will continue to keep our County as one of the safest in the State of Alabama.”
About the charges
The first four counts charge Blakely with four separate thefts from his campaign account totaling $11,000. Counts five through 10 charge him with theft or ethics charges stemming from him illegally taking money from Limestone County funds, including from the Sheriff's Law Enforcement Fund.
A spokesperson with the AG's office verified the law enforcement fund is the Sheriff's Office pistol permit fund.
Count 11 charges Blakely with soliciting a $1,000 wire transfer from a subordinate other than in the “ordinary course of business,” the AG's office said.
Counts 12 and 13 charge the sheriff with using his official position or office to acquire interest-free loans. Specifically, count 12 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans in the form of a $50,000 cashier’s check and/or a $22,189.68 credit. Count 13 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans by taking money from a safe that was used to store the Limestone County inmates’ personal funds.
At Thursday's press conference, Young was asked who would be overseeing the Sheriff's Office funds in the wake of Blakely's indictment.
Young said there would be no change in who oversees office funds.
He was also asked about the public's trust in the Sheriff's Office, given the indictment.
“We have to uphold the law and we have to live by it, we have to go by it like everybody else and we hold a high standard,” he said. “We expect more of ourselves, hopefully, than the public does.”
Young was also asked if family members of inmates need to be worried about the safety of inmates' personal funds. He said he could not comment on that, given it is an Attorney General's office case.
Can he keep his job?
As to whether the Blakely can remain in office, the Alabama Code does not set qualifications for the office of sheriff but it does put limitations on who is eligible to hold a state office.
There are six ways a person can be disqualified from holding the office of sheriff. Among them, if the sheriff is convicted of treason, embezzlement of public funds, malfeasance in office, larceny, bribery or any other crime punishable by imprisonment in the state or federal penitentiary. Or, if there is an unpaid judgement for any money received by the sheriff in his official capacity.
Alabama Code 36-2-1 and 36-2-1(b) say the eligibility requirements must be met throughout the sheriff's tenure. If for some reason a sheriff is disqualified from holding the position of sheriff during the elected term, he must vacate the office.
In providing a possible preview to how McDaniel would defend his client, he told the media he would file motions to declare the Alabama Ethics Act “unconstitutional.”
“We have the honor to represent Sheriff Blakely,” McDaniel said. “I represented Gov. (Guy) Hunt and he was governor until the case was over and he was pardoned. (Blakely) has no plan to resign; he'll be here.”
Blakely is also being represented by attorney Robert Tuten and Marcus J. Helstowski, who is also an attorney at McDaniel and McDaniel.
“We look forward to trying this case in this county with 12 good citizens of Limestone County making a decision on this matter,” McDaniel told the media outside the Sheriff's Office. “Anybody going through anything like this when you've been sheriff in this county all these years, it's a disappointment, but it's something you've got to go through and got to fight.”
When asked specifically what he finds unconstitutional about the ethics law, McDaniel replied, “A lot of things.”
“It's so broad you don't know what you've done,” he said. “We'll be attacking that.”
Both McDaniel and Young were mum on case details, but an ethics complaint against Blakely was filed last year. The Alabama Ethics Commission ultimately referred the complaint to the Alabama Attorney General's Office for investigation. Details about ethics complaints are not made public.
At the time, Blakely said he was not aware of the nature of the complaint, but Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said Blakely and his attorney were advised of the charges and were given an opportunity to appear before the commission.
In a statement, Attorney General Steve Marshall thanked the FBI for its assistance in investigating the case. He urged anyone with information regarding “corrupt practices by public officials” to email email@example.com.
“Public officials are entrusted to perform their duties honestly and above reproach,” he said. “When that bond of trust is broken, our society suffers undue harm. My office — working with our federal and state partners — is committed to ensuring that the violators of the public trust be held accountable under the law.”
FBI Birmingham Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. also urged anyone with information about “potential wrongdoing by a public official or law enforcement officer” to call the tip line at 844-404-TIPS.
"While the overwhelming majority of public officials serve honorably, those who corrupt the operations of government rob their communities — their friends and neighbors — of the fundamental right to honest government, and we must insist on absolute honesty, integrity and trustworthiness from everyone,” Sharp said.
The AG's office said no further information about the case would be released at this time. The indictment was not available as of The News Courier's deadline.