ATHENS — A jury that had listened to hours of detailed financial testimony Monday in the public corruption trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely was not present to hear the judge warn the final witness of the day that he had a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination.
It was the sixth day of the trial and the first day in which witnesses were called in the state attorney general’s prosecution of the 10-term sheriff on 11 felony counts of theft and ethics violations.
Retired Judge Pamela Baschab had the jury leave the courtroom before issuing the Fifth Amendment warning to Trent Willis, founder and CEO of Red Brick Strategies in Huntsville. Red Brick assisted Blakely in his successful 2014 reelection campaign.
Willis, it turns out based on the colloquy between the lawyers as they argued motions to the judge, is the subject of an investigation involving the disappearance of funds from the campaign account of state Rep. Richie Whorton in 2018, a campaign that Red Brick Strategies managed. A separate investigation involving Willis or his associates was mentioned but not described.
In a whispered sidebar with Baschab while Willis remained on the witness stand, Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris, head of the attorney general’s anti-corruption unit, appeared to alert the court to the pendency of the investigations and the possible need for Willis to be advised he had a right not to incriminate himself. Baschab had the jury escorted to the jury room and then placed her head in her hands.
After the jury left, Morris acknowledged the investigations, but said Willis is not receiving any special treatment as a result of testifying in the Blakely case.
Blakely defense attorney Marcus Helstowski complained that information about the investigations was not turned over to the defense despite discovery requests early in the case. Morris said her anti-corruption unit did not know about them because a different unit of the office was handling them.
“It is embarrassing to our office that this happened,” Morris said, and explained that at the time the Attorney General’s Office was “siloed” so information on the activities of one unit was not shared with other units.
Blakely’s lawyers made a motion that Willis be disqualified as a witness because of the prosecution’s failure to notify the defense earlier of the investigations, and that the jury be advised to disregard the testimony that came before he was advised of his rights. The defense also moved for a mistrial, which was denied.
Baschab advised Willis his testimony was suspended until 9 a.m. today, and she advised the lawyers to file briefs outlining their positions on whether he could continue his testimony.
Red Brick Strategies
Before the abrupt end to his testimony, Willis had been providing details on a $4,000 check Red Brick Strategies had issued to Blakely and which, according to other testimony, Blakely deposited into his personal account.
Willis said he reached an arrangement with John Plunk, a lawyer in Athens, and Blakely that Red Brick would handle consulting for Blakely’s campaign, which would include designing advertisements, direct mail campaigns and related political work.
Willis said his firm generally works for Republicans. Blakely is a Democrat. Willis said he feared that if campaign disclosures with the Secretary of State’s Office showed his firm had received payments from Blakely’s campaign account, it would undermine his ability to work with future Republican candidates.
To avoid this issue, Willis said, it was agreed that Plunk would pay Red Brick, rather than the campaign committee. He said it was his expectation that these would be reported as “in-kind contributions” from Plunk to the Blakely campaign, so Red Brick would not appear on the forms.
He said Plunk or a company associated with Plunk made five of the six monthly payments agreed upon at $3,500 each, and he invoiced Plunk for the final $3,500 payment on Nov. 7, 2014, days after Blakely won the election.
Willis said Blakely’s campaign committee issued a check for $7,500 to Red Brick on Nov. 14, 2014. In separate testimony, Blakely campaign treasurer Tom Watkins said he issued this check at Blakely’s request. According to Willis, Blakely contacted Willis and asked if he could receive a refund for the $4,000 overpayment. Also on Nov. 14, Red Brick issued the $4,000 refund check to Blakely. According to separate testimony, the check was deposited in Blakely’s personal account three days later.
Willis testified he signed the check, but Blakely filled in the amount and payee. Asked by Morris why he would give Blakely a blank check, Willis responded he trusted him because “this is the sheriff of Limestone County.”
According to phone records, Willis and Blakely spoke twice on Nov. 13, 2014, and eight times the following day.
The testimony was relevant to a count in the indictment alleging that Blakely stole money from his campaign account. Blakely’s treasurer testified that if a refund was due, it should have been deposited in the campaign account, not Blakely’s personal account.
Earlier in the day, the testimony focused on two other campaign contributions.
Blakely was endorsed by the local Realtors organization and received a $1,500 donation from the Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee in December 2014, a month after Blakely had won the election. According to testimony from bank officials Monday, Blakely deposited the money into his personal banking account at Bank Independent, not the campaign account at First National Bank. Blakely’s campaign treasurer said he always made the deposits into the campaign account. He said he never reported the PAC contribution to the state because he did not know about it.
Austin Hinds, who is an owner of Austin Hinds Motors in Marshall County, testified he contributed $2,500 to Blakely in November 2017. A copy of the check listed its purpose as “reelection donation.” Blakely deposited the check into his personal account, according to banking records. The campaign treasurer testified he did not report the contribution on campaign finance reports because he did not know about it.
In February 2018, campaign treasurer Watkins said, Blakely told him he had received $2,500 in cash as a contribution from Hinds. According to questions by the prosecution, Blakely told Watkins this was just days after one of the sheriff’s subordinates was notified that Blakely was being investigated. Blakely gave Watkins a $2,500 check drawn on Blakely’s personal account and Watkins deposited it in the campaign account, listing it on state records as a contribution from Hinds made Feb. 2, 2018.
Proceedings began Monday morning with a motion to dismiss filed by one of Blakely's attorneys. Nick Heatherly argued that the charges alleging that Blakely stole from his campaign accounts should be dismissed because Blakely was effectively the owner of the accounts and could not steal from himself. He said the allegations only amounted to violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act, not theft, and that charges filed under that law were time-barred because they were filed beyond the statute of limitations.
Baschab denied the motion.