Taking the stand in his own defense Thursday, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely told the jury that some of the alleged thefts from his campaign account were the result of faulty advice from his campaign treasurer, and that at no time did he intend to steal campaign funds.
He also offered an explanation for a campaign rebate that prosecutors allege resulted from an overpayment Blakely manipulated so he could pocket the refund.
After Blakely testified for about four hours and a handful of witnesses testified briefly about his reputation for honesty, the defense rested at 2:35 p.m. Closing arguments are scheduled for 9 a.m. today.
The courtroom audience, largely consisting of Blakely supporters, erupted in laughter when, after the sheriff was cross-examined, his own lawyer asked him a question.
“Sheriff, today you’ve been accused of bribery,” said Robert Tuten. “You’ve been accused of money laundering. Did you kill Jimmy Hoffa, too?” The state objected, and Judge Pamela Baschab sustained.
Several jurors laughed at one point in the cross-examination. Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris was quizzing Blakely about testimony, which he admitted, that he gave $500 casino chips to each of three Limestone County commissioners after a gambling win. Morris, seeking to emphasize for the jury the dollar amount of the chips, asked, “How big were those chips?”
Blakely responded by holding his hand out and shaping his thumb and fingers in a circle. “About that big around,” he said.
Under direct examination from Tuten, Blakely attempted to rebut each of the remaining nine felony counts and one misdemeanor count in the indictment. The prosecution has voluntarily dismissed three felony counts.
Much trial time has been spent on a $4,000 refund that Blakely received from Red Brick Strategies, a political consulting firm, and deposited in his personal account. Red Brick owner Trent Willis testified that Blakely arranged to have the campaign overpay the amount due by $4,000 so Blakely could pocket the refund. Until the $7,500 payment, Blakely supporter John Plunk, an Athens attorney, had an arrangement with Red Brick that he would pay the company $3,500 per month directly.
Blakely said he realized in October 2017 that he would have more funds than he needed to complete his campaign by the November election. He said he contacted Plunk, thanked him for paying Red Brick in previous months, but said the campaign would pay the October and November installments. Blakely said his understanding was that the total amount owed would be $7,500 because, in addition to the $3,500 per month, Red Brick was filming his victory celebration for $500. He said he did not realize Plunk had paid the October installment.
Tom “T-bird” Watkins, Blakely’s longtime friend and campaign treasurer, previously testified he had no knowledge that Red Brick was involved in the campaign until Blakely asked him to pay the firm $7,500, and that he did not know about the arrangement that Plunk would pay Red Brick. Blakely disputed this.
“T-bird knew the arrangement — probably better than I did — with John (Plunk),” Blakely said. Under a state campaign law that is not part of the indictment, the payments by Plunk should have been disclosed in campaign reports as in-kind contributions benefiting the Blakely campaign. Blakely said he mistakenly assumed that Watkins was making the reports.
Blakely said after Red Brick received the $7,500 check, Willis called him and said, “Sheriff, I’ve got good news. Y’all are going to get a rebate.” Willis then had a blank Red Brick check signed by Willis delivered to Blakely. Blakely said he wasn’t sure why Willis wanted the sheriff to fill in the amount.
“I kind of felt like he was kind of hinting that I maybe could fill it out for less and give them a bonus or something,” Blakely said.
Asked about Willis’ testimony that Blakely had arranged the overpayment so he could pocket the refund, Blakely said, “That’s a lie.”
Blakely said he deposited it in his personal account because his campaign treasurer, who lived in Clay County, handled all campaign deposits and wasn’t expected back in Limestone County for some time. He said he was afraid the check would bounce if he didn’t deposit it, but then forgot about the deposit and consequently failed to issue a personal check for $4,000 to the campaign account.
Blakely’s campaign treasurer received the blame on other issues as well.
Blakely said he deposited into his personal account a $1,500 contribution from the Alabama Realtors PAC on the advice of Watkins. This made sense, Blakely said, because he had at least $1,500 in unreimbursed personal expenses from the campaign, although on cross he said he had no receipts for those expenses. Watkins had testified he did not know about the Realtors check, which was not disclosed in campaign finance reports.
Questioned about a $2,500 campaign donation from Austin Hinds Motors in November 2017, Blakely said he deposited it in his personal account temporarily until his campaign treasurer returned to Limestone County. Bank records show Blakely did issue a personal check in that amount to his campaign fund in February, but prosecutors have argued he only did so because he discovered on Jan. 31, 2018, that he was the target of an investigation.
Blakely repeatedly testified that his campaign treasurer maintained the only campaign checks, the only campaign deposit slips and that Blakely relied entirely on him to properly fill out campaign disclosure forms, although he acknowledged signing those forms.
Previous testimony indicated that the county accidentally overpaid Blakely by about $27,000 over the course of about 18 months. When the county was audited, Blakely was informed he needed to repay the money either in a lump sum or in installments. Blakely said he was leaning toward paying in installments, and mentioned the problem to some friends.
“The next Sunday we were out riding horses and I was telling my horse-riding buddies about it, and Tall Paul (Anderson) said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘Probably around $30,000.’ He said, ‘I’ll let you have it,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know when I can pay you back.’ He said, ‘I ain’t worried about it. I know you’ll pay me.’”
Anderson did not charge him interest, Blakely said, probably because Blakely had kept his horse for about 20 years “and not charging him a dime.”
Blakely said he was surprised Anderson gave him the loan in cash, but that eventually he repaid him in cash.
Prosecutors have suggested that Blakely committed some crimes in part because he was in a financial bind due to his inability to repay Anderson’s loan.
On cross-examination, Morris focused on the fact that, according to bank records, Blakely would have overdrawn his account had he not deposited campaign funds into his personal account. While Blakely said he agreed with the prosecution’s math, he denied that he would have overdrawn his account.
“Not if I didn’t write any other checks I wouldn’t,” Blakely said. “Your math is correct but your assumptions are wrong.”
Morris also showed Blakely the form that was filled out when he and Watkins opened the campaign bank account. Both were signatories on the account, she noted, so Blakely could have cashed checks or made deposits into the account.
Cashing in chips
Morris also questioned Blakely about his arrangement with three county commissioners who joined him at a Biloxi casino. According to previous testimony Blakely won about $11,000 and gave each of the commissioners a $500 chip. Each of them also cashed in $3,000 in chips for Blakely, Morris said of prior testimony. Morris in her questions suggested Blakely was trying to avoid reporting the $11,000 gain by using his friends, so as to keep the amount below the $10,000 limit that would require reporting.
Blakely denied the allegation and said he could have avoided any reporting requirement just as easily by cashing the chips in himself in separate transactions. He also denied that he enjoyed any tax benefit from having the commissioners cash in the chips.
In earlier testimony, an investigator with the Tennessee Valley Authority testified Blakely had wrongly deposited in his personal account a $1,000 TVA check intended to pay for damage at the Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo Arena in 2013. The investigator said the money should have gone to the nonprofit company that owns the arena. Blakely on cross-examination said he was surprised to get the TVA check and thought it was an energy-efficiency rebate on an HVAC system he bought for his home. He said he did not recall signing a release that described the payment as being for damage at the arena.