A lawyer for Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin and three other members of the Sheriff’s Office said he’s aware of two grand jury investigations involving his clients, but doesn’t know when or if they will be indicted.
The statements by attorney Robert Spence of Tuscaloosa came in a motion requesting a federal judge to issue a stay, or a halt of all activity, in a lawsuit filed against his clients by Falkville blogger and business owner Glenda Lockhart.
“The grand jury received evidence from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office in May, but the prosecutors have given no indication since then that the grand jury has reached any agreement to either indict or issue a no bill,” Spence wrote in the motion filed Monday. “The defendants also have been advised the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama is looking at potential criminal charges against one or more of these defendants, as well.”
Spence argued in the motion that his clients can’t be compelled to testify in the civil case because it would infringe on their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala on Tuesday granted the stay until Oct. 18, noting the case will be two years old at that point. If the defendants are not ready to proceed then, she said she will schedule a conference with the lawyers.
"I'm very hopeful that come Oct. 18 she'll lift the stay and if they have to plead the Fifth again, then they plead the Fifth again," said Lockhart's lawyer, Brandy Lee of Birmingham. "Generally federal court judges don't like a whole lot of delay."
In addition to Franklin, Lockhart’s lawsuit names as defendants information technology employee Justin Powell and deputies Robert Wilson and Blake Robinson.
Lee said Matt Hart, chief of the state attorney general’s special prosecution division, had previously requested that all relevant Morgan County Sheriff's Office documents be protected to assist him in an investigation. She does not know the status of that investigation, and the Attorney General's Office will not comment on investigations.
Lockhart’s lawsuit alleges Franklin and the other defendants orchestrated an unlawful search of her Falkville business and hacked her computers and emails in an effort to retaliate against Lockhart for her blog critical of the sheriff.
The Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant on former Morgan County Warden Leon Bradley’s home Oct. 4, 2016, and obtained and executed a search warrant on Glenda Lockhart’s business the following day. Franklin suspected Bradley of providing files to Lockhart that she posted on her blog, and she fired the 13-year employee Oct. 13, 2016.
Charges were filed against Bradley for misdemeanor tampering with government records by the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office at the request of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, according to an Etowah County deputy who testified for the defense in an April hearing that resulted in the dismissal of those charges.
“I believe that they lied to us,” testified deputy Stephen McGlathery, referring to the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office. “They used us.”
Franklin and the other defendants in Lockhart’s lawsuit also testified at the two-day April hearing before Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson. Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson attended the hearing, as did FBI agent Chris Hendon.
Lockhart filed her lawsuit in October 2016, but she has been blocked from obtaining testimony from the defendants ever since. That's a handicap, Lee said, but the testimony in the April hearing helped build Lockhart's case.
"One plus for us is we had that evidentiary hearing in Decatur, so we have a fair amount of testimony under oath already, despite the stay being in place," Lee said.
Beginning in December 2016, the court in Lockhart's case prevented the plaintiffs from obtaining discovery in the case “pending an underlying state criminal investigation.” The targets of the investigation, according to Franklin’s lawyers, were Bradley and Lockhart. No charges were filed against Lockhart.
“I find it interesting that from the time my office was raided by the Sheriff’s Office the story was that I was under investigation, but now it appears that members of the Sheriff’s Office are the ones under investigation,” Lockhart said Tuesday.
In the motion filed Monday, Spence said his clients could not participate in discovery while under investigation by grand juries.
“The Fifth Amendment privilege protects against both compelled admission of guilt and any compelled testimony which might tend to incriminate,” Spence wrote. “… The issues and actions involved in these criminal investigations overlap with and are identical to issues alleged in the civil case.”
Bradley sued Franklin, Robinson, Wilson, Powell and the Sheriff’s Office in July. The defendants responded with a motion to dismiss the complaint on various grounds, including that they are immune from civil liability because they were acting in their official capacity.
One of Bradley’s lawyers, Nick Heatherly of Falkville, said Franklin should resign. Franklin is in her second term and did not run for re-election. Hartselle police Chief Ron Puckett is unopposed on the November ballot and is scheduled to take office as sheriff in January.
“For those of us that raise our families and live and work in Morgan County, I think this serves as a black eye on us,” Heatherly said Tuesday. “It also has to be tremendously difficult for those men and women who work at the Morgan County sheriff’s department and serve us honorably, because they can’t understand why their boss is still in office. She should resign, if not for personal reasons, then for the residents of Morgan County.”