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Alabama’s Longest-Serving Sheriff Faces Corruption Trial

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, who has been serving since 1983, will stand trial on five felony charges of using his position for personal gain, five felony counts of theft and one misdemeanor theft charge.

(TNS) — Nearly two years after he was booked into his own jail, Alabama’s longest-serving sheriff is about to go on trial for corruption charges.

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely’s trial begins one week from today with jury selection in downtown Athens, the county seat of one of the state’s fastest-growing counties.

The trial is expected to last about a month, with dozens of people subpoenaed to testify and 500 county residents summoned for the jury pool.

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case, while longtime Huntsville attorneys Mark McDaniel and Robert Tuten lead Blakely’s defense team. An out of town judge, Pamela Baschab, was specially appointed to preside over the case because the local judges recused.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. What is he charged with?

He will stand trial on five felony charges of using his position for personal gain, five felony counts of theft and one misdemeanor theft charge.

A grand jury in Limestone handed down a 13-count indictment on Aug. 21, 2019. State prosecutors later dropped two of the charges. The next morning, after the indictment, Blakely had a mugshot taken in the booking room at the jail he oversees.

2. Why is he still the sheriff?

Alabama doesn’t have a law to remove elected public officials from their positions if they are indicted. Unless he is convicted at trial, Blakely gets to remain in office, where he’s been since 1983.

3. What exactly do they say Sheriff Blakely did?

Court records accuse Blakely of stealing from his campaign accounts and sheriff’s office funds and using his position to get interest-free loans. Prosecutors allege that the sheriff’s gambling and drinking habits led him to steal money related to five of the 11 charges against him.
In court records, prosecutors wrote that the sheriff was in casinos from Biloxi to Las Vegas when he “solicited, received or spent” some of the money.

Blakely once was in a casino in Mississippi when he was supposed to be attending a sheriff’s conference in Alabama — a trip that was paid for by his office funds, a prosecutor from the state attorney general’s office wrote in court records.

But the court file leaves questions about how the sheriff is accused of using the money related to the other charges against him.

4. How much money?

It’s hard to tell. The indictment accuses the sheriff of stealing $11,000 from his campaign account, soliciting a $1,000 wire transfer from an employee and stealing additional money from the Limestone County sheriff’s law enforcement fund. But the indictment also accuses the sheriff of using his position to obtain interest-free loans, including borrowing money from a safe that held money that belonged to county jail inmates.

We’ll learn more at trial.

5. How long ago did this start?

Prosecutors are looking at least six or seven years back, but that’s not much in the scope of Blakely’s career. At 70 years old, Blakely has been the sheriff of Limestone County for nearly four decades, longer than Richard Shelby has been a U.S. Senator.

So far prosecutors haven’t said when each of the alleged thefts happened. But court a subpoena issued to a bank across the state line in Tennessee seeks records from 2014. The indictment also identifies incidents in 2015 and 2016.

Blakely’s attorneys have said they plan to show evidence at trial that state audits of the sheriff’s office did not find any evidence of theft.

6. What do they claim he spent the money on?

We don’t know. The indictment offers some detail about how Blakely received wire transfers from office employees and obtained loans from the inmate fund. But it doesn’t spell out how exactly he is accused of stealing from his campaign and public accounts, nor does it spell out how exactly he is accused of spending all of the money.

7. How did he get charged?

The Alabama Ethics Commission investigated a complaint filed against the sheriff in 2018. The commissioners found probable cause that Blakely had violated the state ethics law and forwarded the case to the Attorney General’s Office for consideration of prosecution. The Attorney General’s Office convened a special grand jury, which filed the charges.

8. Who is going to testify against him?

Dozens of people, including at least 15 current and former sheriff’s office employees, have been subpoenaed by lawyers from the attorney general’s office and Blakely’s defense team. The subpoenaed employees range from the chief deputy, to investigators, to administrative staffers.

The potential witness list also includes several campaign donors, an employee from a casino in Biloxi, officials from the state Ethics Commission, the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, and Trent Willis, who ran Red Brick Strategies, a consulting firm in Huntsville.

Attorneys for both the prosecution and defense have subpoenaed current and former members of the Limestone County Commission, including Chairman Collin Daly. Both sides also list Steve Turner, a commissioner who co-owned a race horse with Sheriff Blakely.

9. Wait. He had a racehorse?

Yes. Blakely co-owned the horse named “Game Overtime” with commissioner Turner and a retired sheriff’s deputy.

Blakely and Turner each profited between $1,000-$10,000 from the Louisiana Racing Commission for the racehorse in 2018, according to financial disclosures they filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission.

As an avid horseman, Blakely wears a cowboy hat, boots and shiny belt buckle. Each year, he hosts the Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo to raise money. The event website calls it, “The Largest Outdoor Rodeo East of the Mississippi and the Greatest Show on Dirt.”

10. What happens if he is found guilty?

He’d lose the badge. If convicted on any of the 10 felony charges, Blakely would be removed from office. Under Alabama law, the county coroner would take over as sheriff until the governor appoints someone else.

And he could do time. If Blakely is convicted of all 11 charges, he could face decades in prison. The seven most serious charges each carry a sentence of two to 20 years.

11. What if he’s found not guilty?

Business as usual. If acquitted, Blakely can remain in office. The lifelong Democrat was re-elected to a 10th term in 2018 with 57 percent of the vote. That’s despite a third of the county’s voters casting straight-ticket ballots for Republicans.

After winning that election to become the longest serving sheriff in the state, Blakely said he wouldn’t run again. But two months after his indictment, the sheriff said he changed his mind and planned to seek an 11th term in 2022.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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