The first day of witness testimony in Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely's criminal trial focused mainly on the four theft charges being faced by the sheriff.
Judge Pamela Baschab had told everyone in the courtroom Friday that the trial would resume at 9 a.m. Monday. However, after defense attorneys filed a motion Sunday seeking to dismiss the four theft charges, Baschab held a hearing before 9 a.m. that morning.
Blakely is accused of taking money intended for his campaign account. Defense attorneys said the charges should be dismissed on the grounds that the funds could be used "to benefit ... an individual elected official," that Blakely is considered an "owner" of the property because he is part of the principal campaign committee and that the state Legislature never intended for theft of property charges to be used for Fair Campaign Practices Act violations.
As for the prosecution, attorneys filed a response early Monday, saying just because one has access funds does not grant them clearance to take them and noting it is too late to file such a motion.
Baschab ultimately denied the defense's motion.
Jurors heard from seven witnesses Monday, each discussing documents related to one of the four thefts, while some shared testimony related to their work with 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 Association of Realtors, explained the process through which the local organization requests funding to support a political candidate from the state-level organization. She testified part of the process involves contacting the campaign to make sure the check will be filled out correctly.
For Blakely’s campaign, Varnell said, she only ever spoke with Blakely. She said Blakely never told her to fill out the check to “Friends of Mike Blakely,” the name of his campaign committee, but instead to put his name on it. She testified the association has repeatedly donated to the campaign but never given to Blakely in his personal capacity.
A $1,500 check was presented after the 2014 election was over, 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 in his personal account, which other witnesses repeatedly testified is illegal and a violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
Election law expert
Among those testifying to the illegality of cashing campaign checks in a personal account was Clay Helms, the director of elections for the Alabama Secretary of State’s office. After sharing his background with campaigns and elections, he was identified as an expert witness on election law.
Helms went over the laws regarding how campaigns can spend money, raise money, account for funds raised or spent and the time periods in which they need to do such. He said personal and campaign accounts must be kept separate, because it’s the “only way to stay above the law, above board and transparent.”
While funds deposited into the campaign account can be used to reimburse a candidate when they spend personal funds on election-related items, campaign donations cannot be spent on personal expenses, he said. There must also be regular, accurate reports detailing how much money is coming in or out of a campaign account and why.
The “purpose, ultimately, is transparency,” Helms said, noting members of the media, the public and the opposition often review the reports to determine who is supporting a particular candidate and how much money they’re spending to show said support. After an election, leftover funds can be used for select purposes, such as reimbursing donors or purchasing office equipment if elected, Helms said. As with funds collected or spent before the election, it must be included on the campaign finance report.
Helms reviewed documents related to the year in which Blakely received $1,500 from the Realtors organization while on the stand Monday. He noted a payment for $1,500 from the campaign account was made to Blakely and included on the report, but there was no mention of the $1,500 donation.
‘Can’t remember everything’
Where some witnesses recalled their interactions clearly and others had no interactions at all, some struggled to remember what may or may not have happened.
Such 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 deputy card from Blakely at some point during their friendship but has never worked or volunteered for the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office.
When asked by prosecutors, Hinds remembered a $7,500 loan to Blakely and said he “could have” loaned $4,500, too, but he didn’t remember. Assistant AG Clark Morris offered to let him jog his memory by reading his grand jury testimony, but after it was brought to him, Hinds admitted he didn’t have his glasses so he wouldn’t be able to read it.
When asked why he might have loaned Blakely several thousand dollars, Hinds responded, “I can’t remember everything” and that he had “no idea” what it was for. He then said it “may have been” for horses, but he didn’t document it.
He identified a check filled out by his daughter in November 2017 for $2,500. He said he didn’t recall ever receiving a receipt for the organization because he’s never asked for one. He said it was possible he’s given more than once to Blakely’s campaign in the past but that the $2,500 donation is the only one he can recall.
After being excused as a witness, Hinds stood and wished Blakely “a whole lotta luck” before stepping down from the stand. Blakely is accused of stealing the $2,500 check by depositing it into his personal account instead of the campaign account.
Watkins takes the stand
Among the longest testimonies given Monday was that of Blakely’s campaign finance manager, Thomas Watkins, who started by sharing he was the third in his family to take on the role.
Watkins said he used to live in Limestone County and still has a home here but primarily lives a few hours away in Clay County. He told the court that during election cycles, he might visit between once a week and once every other month to pick up campaign donations.
He said he used information he got from Blakely to complete campaign finance reports. He testified never knowing about a $1,500 donation from the Realtors association in 2014, but he did recognize a check written from the campaign account to Blakely for “gas, oil, transportation and reimbursement.”
He explained reimbursements were usually given after receiving an envelope of receipts from Blakely so Watkins could report what Blakely was being reimbursed for.
As for Hinds, Watkins recalled being told in February 2018 that Blakely’s campaign had 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 that month. He told the court he didn’t know about Blakely receiving a $2,500 check from Hinds months prior, or else 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, D.C., but never actually attending. Watkins said he remembers giving the funds but not why Blakely didn’t attend or why it took so long for Blakely to return the money.
When reviewing that year’s annual report, Watkins noted a $3,000 expense 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 reporting, to which Watkins admitted it’s possible his own personal troubles that year led to a mistake in his report.
When it came to RBS, Watkins didn’t withhold his opinion that the company did “very little” for the campaign. He said he never spoke about RBS with John Plunk, who is said to have paid RBS for the first few months of services for Blakely’s campaign, and he didn’t know if Plunk was overcharged.
What he did know was that he handed a signed but otherwise blank check to Blakely, which was later filled out by Blakely for $7,500 to RBS. Watkins testified this wasn’t something he did often, and he only knew the amount for the campaign report because Blakely told him.
Evidence shows a second check for $4,000 was made out to Blakely from 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 a reimbursement for overcharging, it should have gone through him and been included on the campaign finance report.
Court resumes today
The seventh witness called to testify Monday was Trent Willis of RBS. His testimony was paused Monday afternoon but is set to resume Tuesday morning.
The News Courier will have additional coverage of Blakely’s trial throughout the week.