ATHENS — A state investigator detailed transactions Monday between Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely’s campaign and political consultants that included $4,000 paid back to Blakely personally.
Monday was the 11th day of Blakely’s trial in Limestone County Circuit Court on 10 felony counts and one misdemeanor count of theft and ethics violations, and the sixth day of testimony. Blakely is in his 10th term as sheriff.
Robert Stuart, an investigator for the state Attorney General’s Office, explained for the jury a chart that he had built to detail 2014 payments between Athens lawyer John Plunk and Red Brick Strategies, a political consulting firm. The Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case.
Stuart’s chart showed $3,500 per month paid directly to Red Brick in response to invoices in June, August and October of 2014. Those payments came from Athens lawyer John Plunk, who is vice chairman of the Alabama Ethics Commission but recused himself from its decision to refer Blakely’s case to the Attorney General’s Office.
Trent Willis, founder and CEO of Red Brick, had testified earlier that because he usually works with Republicans and Blakely is a Democrat, it was agreed that Plunk would pay Red Brick and those payments would be reported as Plunk’s “in-kind contributions” to the campaign.
Red Brick’s payments in July and September of that year came from Athens Pharmacy, which is Plunk’s father-in-law’s business, according to Stuart.
And then in November, Red Brick sent a $3,500 invoice. Plunk did not pay this one, Stuart said. Instead, on Nov. 14 Blakely and Willis spoke on the phone. Blakely’s campaign paid $7,500 to Red Brick, and Red Brick wrote a $4,000 check that was deposited to Blakely’s personal account. The next day, Red Brick changed its invoice amount to $7,500.
The prosecution’s theory is that those transactions allowed Blakely to pocket the $4,000.
Stuart also testified about check records that indicated a $1,000 check from the Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee was deposited in Blakely’s personal account, and that Blakely’s campaign (Friends of Mike Blakely) wrote him a $3,000 travel expense check in March 2015. Blakely reimbursed $3,000 in November 2018.
Stuart’s testimony ended abruptly to make way for a scheduled deposition of another witness to obtain evidence that can be used later in the trial. The state could put further questions to Stuart today, and the defense will have an opportunity to cross-examine him.
Also Monday, Debbie Davis came back to the witness stand and testified for more than two hours about a receipt that showed Blakely repaid $945.55 to one of his office accounts after a 2014 trip to Las Vegas.
Prosecutors said they were surprised to learn of the receipt when she first testified Wednesday. They said it should have been delivered with documents subpoenaed in 2019 from the Sheriff’s Office, where Davis is the chief clerk — but they have not found it in those documents.
The issue could change their trial strategy or even cause dismissal of one or more counts, prosecutors have said. Judge Pamela Baschab will hold a hearing about it today before the jury arrives.
Davis maintained that she did her best to find and deliver all the documents subpoenaed.
“You say I didn’t; I say I did,” she told Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris. “… Why would I not do something that was in our favor? … I worked very hard to try to get every record I could find.”
“I question whether you were trying to conceal it (the receipt),” Morris said at one point. Davis said she was not.
Blakely’s check to the Sheriff’s Office for $945.55, dated Dec. 28, 2014, was shown to the jury, as was a receipt that Davis signed for it on Jan. 6, 2015, and a deposit slip that showed it was put in the bank Jan. 7.
Morris questioned Davis about accounting procedures, which Morris said provided “no paper trail” for auditors concerning checks cashed and IOUs placed in office funds. Morris also questioned practices on disposal of records.
Davis said auditors did not find fault with the Sheriff’s Office.
“The money is there,” she said. “That’s why there are no (audit) findings, because the money is in the account.”
Another issue in court Monday was whether Blakely can fire employees at any time, and whether they work for the Sheriff’s Office or the County Commission. Some of the charges against him relate to actions his employees took for him.
Mark Maclin, a lawyer for the commission, said employees work “at will” — meaning that in the absence of a contract, an employee can be fired at any time or can resign at any time. However, there is an appeals process that goes through the County Commission chairman and can include a hearing before the County Commission.
Today's schedule at the Limestone County Courthouse includes the hearing on the receipt matter at 8:30 a.m., without the jury present. The trial is scheduled to resume at 9.