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Limestone sheriff indicted on theft, ethics charges

LIMESTONE COUNTY – Longtime Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely was arrested Thursday after being indicted on 13 theft and ethics counts by a Limestone County grand jury.

Blakely, 68, surrendered to Limestone County authorities Thursday morning and was released on $49,000 bond, according to state Attorney General Steve Marshall. Blakely, a Democrat sworn in as sheriff in 1983, began his 10th consecutive term in January.

The west end of Madison is located in Limestone County.

“Sheriff Blakely’s not guilty of any of these charges,” said attorney Robert Tuten, who along with Mark McDaniel of Huntsville is representing Blakely. “He will plead not guilty at the appropriate time. We intend to try the case and let the citizens of Limestone County hear the evidence and let them make the decision on that.”

The indictment includes 12 felony counts and one misdemeanor count. The felony counts include two for first-degree theft, five for use of official position or office for personal gain, two for second-degree theft, two for third-degree theft and two for soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate. The misdemeanor is for fourth-degree theft.

Limestone County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Stephen Young said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that Blakely returned to his duties as sheriff after posting bond.

Four of the counts in Wednesday’s indictment charge Blakely with $11,000 in thefts from his campaign account.

The alleged thefts included a $1,500 check from the Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee, a $4,000 check from Red Brick Strategies, a $2,500 check from Austin Hinds Motors Inc. and a $3,000 check issued by Blakely’s campaign committee.

Five other counts charge him with theft and ethics crimes stemming from his alleged appropriation of money from the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Fund.

These counts include allegations that Blakely obtained or took unauthorized control of checks from the Law Enforcement Fund in the amounts of $2,500 on Dec. 1, 2014, $2,000 on Dec. 4, 2015, and a separate count alleging that a $2,000 check issued from the Law Enforcement Fund on Dec. 4, 2015, was taken “for himself, a family member, or a business with which he is associated.”

Blakely is also charged in the indictment with soliciting separate $1,000 wire transfers from subordinates on Dec. 9, 2015, and Aug. 17, 2016.

Two counts in the indictment charge him with using his official position to acquire interest-free loans. In one of those counts, he is charged with using his official position to obtain interest-free loans in the form of “a $50,000 cashier’s check and/or a $22,189.68 credit.”

In the other count he is charged with using his official position to obtain interest-free loans by taking funds “from a safe that held money belonging to the Limestone County inmates.”

“Public officials are entrusted to perform their duties honestly and above reproach,” Marshall, a Republican, said in a written statement. “When that bond of trust is broken, our society suffers undue harm.”

 

Blakely continues duties

Tuten said Blakely’s status as a rare north Alabama Democrat in elected office could turn out to be relevant.

“There’s always the possibility in any case involving a public official that politics may be in the mix somewhere. Of course we’ll be looking for that sort of thing,” Tuten said. “If it’s there, we’ll deal with it appropriately.”

Young said the use of an indictment suggests the prosecution’s case is weak.

“A grand jury indictment is not a conviction,” Young said. “In fact, it’s the process typically used when an agency cannot obtain enough probable cause to get its own warrant. Sheriff Blakely once told me, and I quote, ‘You can indict a ham sandwich,’ “Young said at the press conference.

Young said the Sheriff’s Office is like a family.

“This affects us all, but we remain united in our mission to serve the great people of this county with our very best, and we will continue to do so come hell or high water,” Young said.

While Young said Blakely remained on duty Thursday, he declined to speculate on whether Blakely would remain in office during the pendency of the case.

Marshall said the Attorney General’s Office is working with the the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case.

“While the overwhelming majority of public officials serve honorably, those who corrupt the operations of government rob their communities — their friends and neighbors — of the fundamental right to honest government, and we must insist on absolute honesty, integrity and trustworthiness from everyone,” said FBI Birmingham Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. in a joint statement with Marshall.

The case is being prosecuted by the attorney general’s Special Prosecutions Division.

Ethics investigation

In October, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Blakely violated the state’s ethics law and voted to refer the case to the state Attorney General’s Office for further investigation, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said at the time.

Tuten said Thursday that he and his client were aware of the ongoing ethics investigation.

“Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we’re going to focus in on the different charges and start attacking those and preparing the case to go to trial,” Tuten said.

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.”

Tuten said he was not concerned that the grand jury indicting Blakely was made up of Limestone County residents.

“Limestone County is the only place they could have held this grand jury. The state doesn’t have to put on any evidence that’s favorable to the sheriff. All they have to do is present their case and their evidence and things that they think make the sheriff guilty of something. They don’t have to present any defenses or the other side of the story,” Tuten said.

Blakely is also a defendant in a federal civil lawsuit filed in January by Limestone County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Leslie Ramsey. She alleged Chief Deputy Fred Sloss inappropriately touched and propositioned her, and that Blakely retaliated against her when she complained. She claimed that after the sheriff’s rodeo in May 2017 Blakely reprimanded her and, according to the lawsuit, called her “a bad apple,” told her she needed a psychiatrist and threatened to fire her.

Blakely and Sloss denied the allegations.

Blakely’s office also this year came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Labor, which cited the Sheriff’s Office for overtime violations. The Limestone County Commission in February agreed to pay $49,968 in back wages to 126 Sheriff’s Office employees for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The allegations centered on uncompensated hours spent by deputies at the sheriff’s rodeo and when filing warrants outside their normal working hours.

 

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