As they did in her recent tax evasion trial, Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie’s defense attorneys have made her out as the victim of political enemies and an overreaching federal government.
In their closing arguments, Neil Hanley and Dennis Knizley accused the government of protecting a whistleblower they claim to be “a crook, a liar and a cheat.” That whistleblower, computer contractor Victor Crawford, was the key witness for many of the charges against Hastie and her codefendant, Deputy License Commissioner Ramona Yeager. He has also been employed through the license commission for more than 20 years.
“The federal government is attempting to impose its unique interpretation of a county contract, and turn a billing mistake into an obtaining property by fraud case,” Hanley said. “They’re protecting a man who’s been milking the county government for more than 25 years, and they’re siding against probably the best and most effective public servant this county has ever seen.”
According to Hanley, Hastie did nothing wrong by using Crawford’s company to pay a public relations company for work performed in her office. He also called the prosecution’s case “smoke, mirrors and rabbit tricks.”
Hanley emphasized his claim that Crawford’s contract with the county allows for Hastie to use him to pay third party subcontractors for virtually any reason. He also again questioned why Crawford would let his alleged extortion continue for years without ever confronting Hastie about it.
Hanley went on to rehash evidence the defense produced showing what they called a “supporting and encouraging” friendship Crawford had with Hastie. He again played a video of Hastie talking with Crawford. At the time, Hastie didn’t know Crawford was recording the conversation for the FBI.
In the video, she told Crawford he was “the best” at what does and encouraged him to finish his computer program and sell it to other counties. Hastie even wrote Crawford a “glowing” letter of recommendation when he attempted to market his program to Jefferson County. Hanley made sure to point out Hastie’s friendly tone in the video.
“That’s Kim Hastie, unrehearsed,” Hanley said. “That’s the way it was. There was no extortion in this case. That ‘atmosphere of intimidation,’ was actually an atmosphere of accountability that shows how she got those ‘10-minute tags.’”
Amongst other charges, Hastie is accused of lying to a federal agent. Combatting that charge, Hanley said Hastie may have lied to the media, including Lagniappe, but told the truth when the “FBI came a-knocking.”
As he has before, Hanley also doted on the jury and its civic responsibility to level the playing field against the federal government.
“Freedom wouldn’t mean much if the federal government was allowed to scoop you up and put you in jail,” he said. “That’s what separates us from the Irans and the Koreas of the world.”
Though prosecutors called his statements “shenanigans,” Knizley took Hanley’s courtroom theatrics to the next level — telling jurors that “Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison” would shake their hand for “doing the right thing” if they agreed to acquit his client, Yeager.
“It is preposterous and absurd to think Ramona Yeager had something to do with a fraudulent attempt to steal from the county government,” Knizley said. “(County Commissioner) Jerry Carl came to the stand, and they didn’t ask him if these bills were fraudulent. You know why? Because they didn’t want the answer.”
Ultimately, Knizley said his client, a 41-year employee of the license commission, had no motive to commit fraud. He also said there was no evidence to suggest “a fear of being fired” motivated her, as prosecutors suggested.
Knizley also doubled down on evidence the defense had aired against Crawford during the trial that included hundreds of thousands of dollars he made from allegedly “overbilling” Mobile County.
Pointing furiously at the prosecution, Knizley told jurors, “they are trying to trick you.”
“You should send them a message,” he said. “‘I’m not being involved in that. That’s not what my government’s about.’ If we can convict a wonderful, sweet woman like this on the evidence of people like Victor Crawford, we might as well burn the courthouse down because there is no justice.”
“The Hastie Way”
In their closing arguments, prosecutors focused on the evidence and highlighted at least 12 “lies” Hastie allegedly told the local media and federal investigators. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Bordenkircher said the case was about Hastie “robbing the taxpayers” of their right to decide how their money was spent in “her office.”
He even accused the defense of intentionally leaving out certain pieces of documents they submitted as evidence, one such example being the subcontract with the web company Wakefly that Hanley submitted to compare with invoices prosecutors were scrutinizing.
“I don’t mind a hard cross-examination, but fixing the document? Do we really have to do that? It seems that’s the Hastie way,” Bordenkircher said. “The Hastie way is to lie. It’s a consistent pattern of driving her political ambitions down. She doesn’t want it to get out.”
Bordenkircher didn’t save all his accusations for Hastie, he also launched quips at some of the defenses’ key witnesses like political consultant Jonathan Gray of Strategy Inc. and State Rep. David Sessions.
Hastie’s trouble began when she lobbied for a bill to merge her office with that of the Mobile County Revenue Commission. In the past two years, Sessions has sponsored or cosponsored Hastie’s legislative efforts, and was called to the stand to discuss that support on Monday.
In his closing statements, Bordenkircher called Sessions a “political crony,” and restated that during his cross-examination Sessions didn’t know any of the details about the merger he had twice pledged support to.
“Would you want Representative Sessions to join your business? Because it doesn’t look like he even knows where the license commission is,” Bordenkircher said. “They told you this merger was going to save $1 million. Have you seen any evidence of that?”
He also called Gray “a political hack” paid to come to court and “lie about” Hastie’s intentions. In his testimony, Gray said he didn’t believe Hastie intended to improperly pay him $10,000 from a segregated and earmarked license commission account, but Bordenkircher said Hastie’s lies to Lagniappe and federal prosecutors showed that wasn’t the case.
In essence, Bordenkircher said Hastie let her “political ambitions” get in the way of her obligation to be honest with Mobile County taxpayers. He said she started in 2008 with good intentions but ultimately became a “political animal” that was “only concerned with herself.”
On Wednesday, the jury spent around four hours in deliberation — emerging only to ask Judge Kristi DuBose if they could “convict one person of conspiracy and not the other.” As the question was posed, Hastie’s supporters in the courtroom grew quiet.
Prosecutors have already stated Yeager’s role in the alleged conspiracy was dwarfed by Hastie’s, who they compared to a “quarterback,” for example. Yeager, they said, acted more as an “offensive lineman.”
Just before 5 p.m., DuBose sent the jury home for the day. They are expected to continue deliberations at 8 a.m. Thursday.
If convicted on certain charges, Hastie would immediately be removed from office in both her current position as license commissioner and her future position as revenue commissioner elect.
During her previous trial, an attorney for Mobile County said a replacement would likely have to be named by Gov. Robert Bentley, but the county could appoint an interim license commissioner until a long-term appointment could be approved at the state level.
DAILY COVERAGE OF THE KIM HASTIE CORRUPTION TRIAL
June 2: Final day of testimony in Hastie trial features former consultant, character witnesses
June 1: Political consultants close testimony against license commissioner
May 29: Defense continues to grill key witness in Hastie corruption trial
May 28: Hastie defense scrutinizes whistleblower’s billing practices
May 27: Hastie: ‘I only put what I wanted them to see’
May 27: Employee testimony: ‘Hastie asked for a list of emails’
May 26: Opening arguments presented in Hastie corruption trial