Former Strateco employee Wesley Gunter took the stand in defense of Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie this morning, but wound up raising more questions about the work Strateco provided for Hastie’s office in 2014.
Gunter testified to doing “very little political work” in his time with Strateco, but said he was the point person for the firm Hastie hired last February. Hastie’s attorney Neil Hanley has maintained throughout the trial that a newsletter Strateco made for the office wasn’t political and “pertained to the normal business of the license commission.”
However, while he said the newsletter did include some basic contact information and an employee spotlight, Gunter said “the primary information was about merging the license commission with the revenue commission.”He also said the first product the Strateco team produced for Hastie was a powerpoint presentation and a written release about the office merger. As was detailed in previous reports, Gunter submitted the invoices to APL Software, a compnay run by computer contractor Victor Crawford that was used to pay Strateco a monthly retainer of $2,500 for at least four months last year.
Gunter went through each invoice individually and answered questions Hanley has asked several witnesses about the payments they submitted to Crawford — “Is there anything false here? Was this an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay?”
Gunter agreed with Hanley’s questions saying that nothing “he was aware of” was false about those particular invoices. However, answering questions from the defense, Gunter did say there may have been an inaccuracy about the “social media” description that ultimately made its way onto Strateco’s final invoices.
In previous testimony, prosecutors have shown that several steps were taken to change the invoices Strateco was submitting. Originally, the expenses were listed as “Kim Hastie Consultant retainer,” but were later changed to “Strateco retainer” before finally being submitted with a description of “social media management and digital marketing.”
February, March, April and June invoices from 2014 included “social media” but, according to Gunter’s testimony, the Facebook page the company built for Hastie didn’t launch until May — though he did say some work building a database of content for the page had been done prior to its launch.
When redirected by the defense, Gunter said “social media and digital marketing” was the long-term goal Strateco had at the license commission, which is why he listed that language on the invoice.
In addition, Gunter agreed with Hanley’s defense that Hastie only wanted more detail for the expenses her office was accruing. When asked, he said she “wanted more information.”
Gunter also said the company did “virtually no” work in the month of March, but were still paid a monthly retainer.
In his testimony, Gunter said he sent Strateco’s first invoice to the license commission, but was told by his boss, Strateco CEO Chad Tucker, to begin sending his invoices to APL Software Engineering — a computer contractor in Hastie’s office.
He said at the time he had “zero” contact with Crawford and hadn’t even met him. He also said the agreement with Hastie’s office is the only time he’s been paid through a third party contractor while performing marketing services.
As for Ramona Yeager, Gunter did support defense attorney Dennis Knizley’s theory that his client only “had a clerical involvement” with the bills submitted by Strateco. According to Gunter and others who testified, Yeager handled the Strateco invoices the same way she would deal with other invoices in the normal course of her job at the license commission.
However, prosecutors would later point out Yeager had sat in on multiple recorded conversations with Hastie discussing the changes to Strateco’s invoices and had also made comments about not wanting to “bring attention” to the invoices. In addition, she had also signed off on each of the invoices prosecutors have been scrutinizing the past week.
Near the end of the testimony in the trial, Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl was called to the stand to discuss the “$1.25 fund” Hastie used to pay for legislation drafted by Strategy Inc. Carl was on the Commission at the time Hastie promoted the legislation establishing the $1.25 fund.
Carl said his understanding of the bill was that it was to provide funding for kiosks that would allow Mobile County residents to renew their tags at select locations like the mall and grocery stores.
After being questioned by prosecutors, Carl said Hastie seemed to know the limitations on the bill and what it was legislatively intended for when she brought it before the county commission for approval a few years ago.
The defense for Hastie and Yeager had no questions for Carl, and he was dismissed.
As is common in criminal trials, Hastie called a string of character witness to testify on her behalf both personally and professionally. At least five of her employees were called to the stand — many of whom had worked for former License Commissioner Carol Norris.
The synopsis of those testimonies was simple — Hastie had provided the “10-minute tags” she campaigned on in 2008 and turned the office around when she took the helm the following year.
Employees disputed the prosecution’s claims that Crawford’s computer system was the force behind “10-minute tags.” They said the changes Hastie made like opening more windows, equipment upgrades, a queue system and additional cross training were the reason for the efficiency in her office.
Another handful of character witnesses discussed Hastie’s character and reputation in the community, all of which described it as “excellent” or “stellar.” Those witnesses included Bayfest CEO Bobby Bostwick, former State Rep. Chad Fincher and former Mobile County Sheriff Tom Purvis.
However, the prosecution was quick to point out that each of the character witnesses were unfamiliar with the facts of the case and the details of Hastie’s criminal allegations, the exception being Margaret Templeton, who sat in on the trial all of last week before being called as character witness on Tuesday.
When prosecutors asked why she was allowed to sit in on testimony, Judge Kristi DuBose called the question irrelevant.
Pending motions, mistrial?
In order to address some pending motions, DuBose sent jurors home for the day around 2 p.m., but a hearing was held later that afternoon to discuss a motion for acquittal on all charges filed by the defense.
That motion was made under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which “tests the sufficiency of the evidence against the defendant, and avoids the risk that a jury may capriciously find him guilty though there is no legally sufficient evidence of guilt.”
Dubose ultimately allowed the majority of the charges to stand but is still considering whether to dismiss the charges of extortion against Hastie. Those allegations suggest the license commissioner held Crawford’s job over his head in order to obtain political contributions and office Christmas gifts through his company.
During the hearing, DuBose said Assistant U.S. Attorneys Bordenkircher hadn’t produced indisputable evidence that showed a specific instance of Hastie threating Crawford’s job in order to obtain something. She said it wasn’t enough that Crawford testified about fearing for his Job, Hastie must also have known Crawford held that believe and expressly taken advantage of it.
“Extortion is more than an ethic’s violation,” Dubose said. “The Supreme Court has really upped the ante on what the government has to prove in these cases.”
Prosecutors told Lagniappe it’s uncommon for a judge to throw out charges this late in a trial, but DuBose herself has done it before. In recent trials against Stan Wright and Steve Russo, the former mayors of Bayou la Batre and Orange Beach respectively, DuBose dismissed at least some of the charges.
During the hearing, Hanley also asked for the mistrial the defense hinted at back in March when attorney Buzz Jordan was disqualified from Hastie’s three-man legal team.
Correspondence Jordan sent to Hastie after her office was raided by federal agents was allowed to be submitted as evidence for both sides during a series of motions ahead of the trial. Inadvertently, that also increased the likelihood Jordan would be called to the stand himself.
Then, prosecutors cited their intention to call Jordan as a witness as the reason for requesting he be barred from representing Hastie. At the time, another judge approved that request, but Jordan never testified during the trial. Though he wasn’t permitted to be seen by the jury, he has remained on Hastie’s legal team and did make at least one appearance in the courtroom.r
The defense still maintains that disqualifying Jordan denied Hastie her constitutional right to the counsel of her choosing, but DuBose ultimately dismissed their motion after prosecutors explained they believed License Commission Attorney Tyler Prichett to be a possible witness before the trial started. Had Prichett been called by the defense, prosecutors say they would have needed Jordan’s testimony.
The judge is expected to make a final ruling on the extortion charges first thing on Wednesday morning, which will no doubt influence the closing arguments scheduled to begin afterward. Attorneys expect the case will be handed to the jury sometime around noon.
DAILY COVERAGE OF THE KIM HASTIE CORRUPTION TRIAL
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