Judge refuses to dismiss charges against Alabama sheriff

Published 4:08 pm Monday, July 19, 2021

Testimony began in the corruption trial of a longtime Alabama sheriff Monday after a judge refused a defense request to throw out four charges alleging he stole thousands of dollars from his own campaign committee.

Judge Pamela Baschab denied a request filed by Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, and prosecutors immediately began calling witnesses who testified about the flow of money toward Blakely, who was first elected in 1983.

News outlets reported Joyce Varnell, executive director of the Athens-Limestone Association of Realtors, testified that Blakely requested that a campaign donation that originated with a state realty fund be made out directly to him rather than his campaign account, called “Friends of Mike Blakely,” after the 2014 election.

Clay Helms, the elections director for the secretary of state’s office, said all campaign contributions should go to accounts separate from the candidate’s personal finances. Candidates can’t put campaign money into a personal account unless it is reimbursement for a personal loan to the campaign, he said.

Indicted on 13 counts in 2019, Blakely was accused by prosecutors during opening statements Friday of using money from his campaign and public accounts to cover personal expenses, and of pressuring employees for money.

The first four counts of the indictment accuse Blakely, 70, of taking money from his campaign account. Blakely was the candidate and principal of the account, the defense argued, so he already had an interest in the money and can’t be convicted of stealing from the fund.

The judge sided with prosecutors, who argued Blakely’s position could result in a bank teller who stole being acquitted of theft if the worker owned any stock in the bank. The state also said Blakely waited too long to seek dismissal of the charges and denied claims that state campaign laws in effect bar the theft charges.

Aside from theft, Blakely is charged with using his office for personal gain and soliciting money from an employee. Blakely, who has continued working as sheriff, pleaded not guilty to all the charges and faces automatic removal from office if convicted of a felony.