Sheriff Mike Blakely was golfing with two county commissioners and playing in a casino while he was supposed to attend sheriff training at a conference in Alabama, testimony revealed today.
Defense attorneys representing Blakely in his northern Alabama corruption case said the sheriff “networked” with the commissioners and was therefore still on official business.
“I don’t think it was networking,” said Steve Turner, a former county commissioner who stayed with the sheriff and other county officials at the casino. “I think it was us who were going to play golf.”
State prosecutors argue that the sheriff took a personal vacation at the Beau Rivage Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the trip was funded, at least in part, by public funds.
Turner was one of two former County Commissioners who testified for the state today in downtown Athens, as the trial focused on the Limestone County Sheriff’s game and golf at 10 mandates. Despite being state witnesses, the two said they considered themselves friends of Blakely,
In August 2016, Blakely, Turner and other Limestone County officials traveled to Orange Beach to attend the annual conference hosted by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.
Blakely and some of the other county officials arrived at the beach on Sunday August 14. They took part in a golf tournament the next day and walked through a vendor exhibit on Tuesday August 16. That afternoon they went to Biloxi.
Records presented to court earlier this week showed Blakely received $ 1,718.36 from the county law enforcement fund to pay for the trip to Orange Beach. A condo for Blakely and two of her office workers cost $ 1,418.36, according to records, and Blakely also received $ 300 in per diem.
Blakely is charged with 11 counts of theft and abuse of power. He is charged with one count of using his location for personal gain and one count of theft in connection with the trip to Biloxi. He is also accused of having used his position for personal gain by requesting a bank transfer of $ 1,000 from one of his employees while he was at the casino.
On the first night at the Mississippi casino, the sheriff lost $ 10,800 playing poker for just over an hour, according to casino records presented to the jury.. Michael Forrester, director of casino operations for MGM Resorts, told the jury that Blakely was playing intermittently until after 4 a.m.
When questioned by Blakely’s defense team, Forrester told the jury that gambling in a casino until the wee hours of the morning is not illegal.
“Did you know Mike Blakely won the lottery and received $ 975,000 about a month before he was in your casino? Asked Marcus Helstowski, one of the sheriff’s attorneys.
“No,” Forrester replied.
Forrester’s testimony did not indicate exactly how much money Blakely had won or lost at the casino.
Kyle Beckman, an assistant attorney general, asked Turner to describe Blakely’s behavior while playing in the casino on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in August 2016.
“When I saw him, he was playing Mississippi stud,” Turner replied. “He was happy… he was like a kid in a candy store. “
On the morning of Wednesday, August 18, 2016, Blakely went golfing with Turner, County Commissioner Steve Black and Mark Yarbrough, who was at the time chairman of the county commission.
Meanwhile, at the conference in Alabama, a special day of training was set aside for sheriffs, including a session on county jail lawsuits, which sheriffs oversee.
Turner testified that Blakely could not have attended the sheriff training.
“I know he wasn’t there because he was playing golf with me,” Turner said.
Mark Yarbrough, the former chairman of the county commission, said Blakely gave each of the commissioners a token of $ 500 of their winnings.
Clark Morris, Assistant Deputy Attorney General, asked if Yarbrough believed it was a conflict of interest because county commissioners control the sheriff’s office budget. Yarbrough testified that he thought it was okay.
Yarbrough told the jury that he has known Blakely for five decades.
“I consider him a friend and I hope he feels the same for me,” Yarbrough said. “I have voted for him every time and I will do it again if he shows up.”
Yarbrough and Blakely are among several Limestone County officials who have been arrested or investigated for corruption in the past two years. Yarbrough is accused of identity theft and harassment for setting up a fake Facebook account to attack his political rivals. His case has not yet been tried.
Turner said he was also friends with Blakely.
“Did you have a racehorse with the sheriff?” »Asked a public prosecutor.
“Yes,” Turner replied.
Blakely, Turner, and a retired Sheriff’s Deputy bought the horse named Game Overtime in 2017. They no longer own it.
“I never saw the sheriff do anything wrong,” Turner said. “In all of my dealings with the sheriff, I never thought he was trying to cheat on me.”
When asked if he hopes the sheriff won’t be convicted, Turner replied, “I just hope the truth comes out, whatever it is.”
Blakely’s trial continues at 9 a.m. on Friday when state prosecutors call their 24th witness.