The legal team representing Sheriff Mike Blakely this morning toasted a key state witness, who is also under investigation by Alabama.
Trent Willis, a political and communications consultant who worked on the Sheriff’s 2014 campaign, returned to the witness stand Tuesday morning and told the jury that he, too, was under investigation by the Office of the Alabama Attorney General. The state is also handling the prosecution of Blakely, the 10-term Limestone County sheriff currently on trial on charges of theft and bribery.
State prosecutors had called Willis to testify on a criminal theft charge that accused the sheriff of stealing $ 4,000 from his campaign account in 2014 by passing the money through Red Brick Strategies, the Willis’ consulting firm in Huntsville.
Marcus Helstowski, one of Blakely’s defense attorneys, sued Willis in cross-examination. Helstowski questioned Willis about allegations he stole $ 100,000 from a state official’s campaign account, was fired from the campaign by Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle due to “relationship inappropriate sexuality ”, would not have paid taxes, loans and rent, and charged clients for work done.
Willis said he “vehemently” disagreed with the allegations.
Willis’ return to the stand came after a controversial row between Blakely’s defense team and state prosecutors over whether Willis should even be allowed to testify.
Judge Pamela Baschab suspended Blakely’s trial and sent everyone home for the day Monday afternoon because state prosecutors did not tell her that Willis was also under investigation before he had ever testified for the state.
Baschab, the retired judge specially appointed to preside over Blakely’s case, held a hearing Tuesday morning to decide what to do with Willis’ testimony. She denied a motion by Blakely’s defense to dismiss one of her theft charges, disqualify Willis as a witness, and strike her testimony off the record.
The defense argued state prosecutors covered up the investigation into Willis in an attempt to prevent the sheriff’s defense team from questioning him about the allegations.
Clark Morris, chief assistant attorney general, said those allegations were not true – that Blakely’s defense knew about the Willis investigation over a year ago. Jasper Roberts, deputy attorney general on the team tasked with prosecuting Blakely, said at the hearing that the Willis investigation was being handled by a separate division of the attorney general’s office.
The brawl over Willis’ testimony began on Monday afternoon when Morris suspended his direct questioning of Willis to speak to the judge about the investigation. Morris asked the judge to instruct Willis that he could plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.
That’s when Blakely’s team clashed and the judge sent everyone home for the day.
Morris this morning asked Willis about the investigation. He said he knew little about the nature of the investigation and told the jury that the state had not offered him any offers or immunity in return for his testimony against Blakely.
In his testimony against Blakely on Monday, Willis told the jury that in 2014 his company was hired to work on Blakely’s re-election campaign for six months. Willis testified that Athens attorney John Plunk, who is also the vice chairman of the state ethics commission, agreed to pay the monthly bill of $ 3,500 for his work on Blakely’s campaign. . Willis testified that he didn’t want to be paid directly by the sheriff’s campaign because Blakely is a Democrat and Willis mainly worked with Republicans.
During the first five months of the contract, Plunk footed the bill, according to the files presented to the jury. But for the sixth month, November 2014, Red Brick received a check for $ 7,500 from Blakely’s campaign account. Blakely then deposited a check for $ 4,000 from Red Brick Strategies into his personal bank account, prosecutors said, rather than sending the refund to his campaign account.
Willis testified that Blakely asked him for a signed blank check from Red Brick. When asked why he agreed to hand over a blank check, Willis said he was convinced the sheriff had good reason to ask.
Thomas Watkins, Blakely’s campaign treasurer, testified that the handwriting on the $ 4,000 check matched the sheriff’s handwriting.
Blakely’s attorneys have accused Willis of admitting to “participating in a criminal conspiracy” with Blakely to defraud the sheriff’s campaign account.
Plunk said on Tuesday morning that he did not remember the details of the deal to pay Red Brick because it all happened seven years ago and he was also paying Willis’ company on behalf of two other candidates. .
The state has brought 11 separate bribery and theft charges against Sheriff Blakely. Four counts accuse him of stealing his campaign account, two counts allege that he stole the county law enforcement fund and five counts accuse him of used his position for personal gain.