ATHENS — Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely would routinely instruct his jail clerk to give him cash from a safe containing inmate funds in amounts ranging from $300 to $600 and she would place IOUs on Post-It notes indicating the amounts owed, she testified Tuesday in Blakely’s public corruption trial.
The former jail clerk, Ramona Robinson, said she kept $100 bills in the safe so they’d be available for his requests, and that she would cash small checks for other employees but only used the IOU system for the sheriff. Blakely would periodically replace the IOUs with a personal check, but frequently would tell her not to deposit the check until a later date, she testified.
Another witness for the prosecution testified Blakely would have overdrawn his personal checking account if 19 of these checks — totaling $29,050 — had been cashed when issued, and that the checks were held without being deposited for up to 66 days.
Robinson said she feared she would have lost her job if she failed to delay depositing one of Blakely's checks as requested, and said she left her job at the Sheriff’s Office in part because of her concerns about Blakely’s use of the inmate funds.
"I just didn't like it," she said.
The testimony came in the seventh day of a trial in which the 10-term sheriff is accused of 11 felony counts of theft and ethics violations.
Before the jury came in Tuesday, there was a bitter debate between the defense attorneys and prosecutors. The conflict arose from a motion by the defense to strike testimony of a key witness for the Attorney General's Office, Trent Willis of Red Brick Strategies in Huntsville.
Willis, whose company was providing political consulting for Blakely’s campaign in 2014, had testified Monday that he refunded an overpayment by Blakely’s campaign committee by giving Blakely a blank check, which he said Blakely made out to himself for $4,000. Willis said he did this at Blakely’s instruction. Blakely’s campaign treasurer testified he had earlier issued a $7,500 check to Red Brick at Blakely’s instruction, and bank records indicate the sheriff deposited the refund in his personal account.
Willis is under investigation by other divisions of the Attorney General’s Office, and the prosecutors in the Blakely case — members of the public corruption unit — said they were unaware he was being investigated until the defense alerted them to the fact.
At a brief hearing before the jury entered the courtroom, Assistant Attorney General Jasper Roberts testified that after being alerted to the issue by the defense, he discovered there was an ongoing investigation of Willis involving campaign contributions being handled by a different division, but Willis had not been informed he was under investigation. Roberts said he called a member of the defense team in early 2020 to provide them with this information.
Asked why he did not confirm the conversation in writing, Roberts triggered numerous objections with his response: “Because I didn’t trust defense counsel.” He said he feared Blakely’s defense team would interfere with the separate investigation of Willis.
Blakely’s lead attorney, Robert Tuten, argued that Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris attempted to sandbag the defense by waiting until she had completed the direct examination of Willis before advising the judge that Willis was under investigation and should be advised of his right to remain silent rather than incriminate himself.
Retired Judge Pamela Baschab, who is presiding over the case, overruled the defense motion to strike one of the theft counts and to strike Willis’ testimony, and allowed Willis to continue testifying.
On cross-examination, Willis denied a long list of allegations by the defense, ranging from stealing campaign funds from a state representative to being fired from Tommy Battle’s Huntsville mayoral campaign for having inappropriate sexual relations with an unnamed person.
'We support Mike'
During opening statements Friday, prosecutors alluded to the difficulty involved in proving a case against Blakely when most of the witnesses were his friends or associates. That difficulty became evident Tuesday during the direct examination of John Plunk, an Athens lawyer. Plunk is also vice chairman of the Alabama Ethics Commission, and recused himself from the commission's decision in October 2018 to refer the Blakely case to the Attorney General's Office.
According to an email between Plunk and Willis, they reached an agreement that Plunk would pay Red Brick $3,500 per month to assist in Blakely’s reelection campaign for the six months ending in November 2014. In the email, Willis outlines the terms of the agreement and asks if it’s acceptable, and Plunk responds, “Yes.” On the same day, according to bank records, Plunk issued the first $3,500 payment. Either Plunk or the parent company of Athens Pharmacy — which is owned by his father-in-law — paid $3,500 each month thereafter in response to invoices from Red Brick.
The issue is important to the prosecution because Red Brick invoiced Plunk for the final payment of $3,500, but instead of receiving that payment, it received the $7,500 payment from Blakely’s campaign committee. The prosecution’s theory is that Blakely intended the overpayment as part of an arrangement that allowed him to pocket the $4,000 refund.
Plunk, however, said he did not remember any arrangement with Willis and did not remember the email from Willis confirming it. He said he had no control over his father-in-law’s business and had no knowledge of why it made some of the $3,500 payments. He also said he had no involvement in a sign that was in his office window Tuesday that says, “We support Mike,” although he said he agreed with it.
“We’re good friends. I support him,” Plunk told the prosecuting attorney.
On cross-examination, defense counsel asked if Plunk had ever known Blakely to be dishonest. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Not in 40 years.” Plunk shook hands with Blakely as he left the witness stand.
Much of Tuesday’s testimony involved reviewing Blakely’s personal bank records. Special agent Louie Wilson of the Attorney General’s Office, an expert in financial crimes, testified that each time Blakely deposited campaign money in his personal account, his personal account would have become overdrawn without the deposit. This was the case, according to prosecutors, when he deposited a $1,500 Alabama Realtors PAC check, a $2,500 contribution from Austin Hinds Motors and the $4,000 refund from Red Brick Strategies.
It was also the case when he told his jail clerk not to deposit the checks he gave her to refund money removed from the safe holding inmate funds, Wilson testified.
Wilson said this was no longer the case after July 18, 2016, when Blakely deposited $966,000 into his personal account. A question by one of Blakely’s lawyers suggested this amount was from winning the lottery. On May 31, 2018, Blakely amended his 2016 Alabama Ethics Commission Statement of Economic Interests to report "more than $250,000" in household income from "TN Lottery and gaming establishments."
Wilson also said he saw evidence of “structuring,” which he said was an attempt to avoid the federal requirement that banks file a report when more than $10,000 in cash is deposited at once. Blakely made three deposits into his personal account, each slightly under $10,000, over two days, according to bank records. The cash deposits on June 30 and July 1 of 2014 totaled $26,000. A Bank Independent teller issued a "suspicious activity report" when Blakely made the first deposit at the drive-thru. The teller, according to the report, advised him he had given her $10,500. Blakely had her return $1,000 so the deposit was $9,500, according to the report.
A question by a lawyer on cross-examination indicated Blakely was accumulating this money so he could repay an accidental overpayment of Blakely’s salary. During opening statements, prosecutors said Blakely borrowed $30,000 from someone referred to as “Tall Paul” to repay the county. There has been no testimony on the loan or whether it was in cash.
Also on Tuesday, an investigator with the Office of Inspector General for the Tennessee Valley Authority testified that TVA issued a $1,000 check for damage done at the Limestone County Sheriff's Rodeo Arena while upgrading transmission lines. The check was issued in September 2013 and made payable to "Mike Blakely, Limestone County sheriff," and the investigator said he expected it to be deposited with the owner of the arena, Sheriff's Reserve Inc. Instead, according to bank records, it was deposited the same day in Blakely's personal account.