I suppose the easy takeaway from Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie beating the rap last week on 16 of 17 federal charges could be that the government really overreached in going after her. Certainly Hastie’s cadre of hardcore supporters expressed that when the jury came back with 16 not guilties.
It’s a reasonable point. This wasn’t a hung jury. On those 16 charges, 12 jurors agreed the government didn’t prove its contention Hastie had committed federal crimes. Coupled with Deputy Commissioner Ramona Yeager being found not guilty of all charges against her, it’s certainly tough to argue this was necessary. Still, in the end I do think her indictment and trial were beneficial to anyone in this county who cares about good government.
The trial shed light on the way Hastie runs her office and on her apparent willingness to manipulate and mislead others. It also cast serious doubt upon whether she ought to be allowed the authority of consolidating the county’s license and revenue commissions, which was at the core of her legal problems.
The benefit of this prosecution — failed though it was in terms of getting a conviction — is that voters got a chance to hear for themselves how patchy Hastie’s ethics are when it comes to getting what she wants. Let’s review the FACTS discussed and revealed in the trial.
• Hastie misused money from a segregated $1.25 account to pay $10,000 to Strategy, Inc. to have the firm write legislation that would combine the license and revenue commissions. The first draft of that legislation would have given Hastie a huge raise equal to 75 percent of the combined salaries of both positions.
• Hastie lied in a recorded interview to Lagniappe reporter Jason Johnson by claiming she didn’t pay Strategy for that work. Incidentally, she also lied to Lagniappe co-publisher Ashley Trice and me about it as well during a meeting to discuss the proposed consolidation.
• She was recorded by IT contractor Victor Crawford explaining that she doctored the numbers on what was being earned by the $1.25 account. She said she did this in order to make the County Commission believe the account was less productive out of fears it would be politically unpalatable if people knew how much money it was raising. “I only put what I wanted them to see,” she said in the recording.
• She was also recorded explaining to Crawford how money he paid to another political consulting firm, Strateco, was to be described as working on her newsletter, social media and Facebook if he was asked about it. She indicated the reason for this was to keep the County Commission from asking questions.
“That’s kind of like IT and that’s what it’s all about. It’s easy and it justifies it because that’s all [Strateco] does. I just want to run it through you because I didn’t want to listen to Merceria [Ludgood] and them.”
• Hastie’s lone conviction was a misdemeanor for taking 30,000 city residents’ emails collected by her office and having them sent to Strateco for the purpose of blasting out an email during the mayoral election with her photo telling voters Kim Hastie supported Sandy Stimpson.
• In what seems an obvious attempt to hide what she was doing, Hastie used her daughter’s email address in discussing the email campaign with Strateco.
• Hastie told WKRG, “We haven’t given anyone’s email information to anyone,” another lie to local media. In closing arguments Hastie’s attorney brushed off her lies to media by saying she told the truth “when the FBI came-a-knocking.”
• She asked Crawford — a contractor who could be terminated by her at any time — to buy gifts for License Commission employees. These included TVs, a Kindle Fire and an iPad.
• She had County Engineer Joe Ruffer tell Crawford to contribute $2,500 to her campaign — the amount she needed to file to run for revenue commissioner.
• Last week as the jury deliberated, the County Commission froze Hastie’s recent efforts to give raises and promotions to 28 of her employees — nine of whom were on witness lists to testify on her behalf, and two of whom did in fact testify. The raises were also stopped because they would put the commission’s personnel expenses at 76 percent of its budget only halfway through the year.
Whew! Quite a list. And those are just the things proven by recordings and documents.
The trial also shined a little light on some other possible issues.
It came out that in 2007 Ruffer decided Crawford had overbilled the county by $82,000 and told him to pay it back. Though he denied overbilling, Crawford paid the money back, but county officials are saying they were never informed about the overbilling and Ruffer won’t talk about it.
There was testimony Hastie has been abusive to staff, punishes employees who “cross” her and often doesn’t work full days. And testimony about Crawford’s other relationships in county government also raises eyebrows.
Prosecutors were able to show that State Reps. David Sessions and Margie Wilcox, who have sponsored Hastie’s efforts to combine the commissions, have almost zero knowledge about either commission’s financial operation. Both appear to have pushed the bill mainly to help out their friend Kim. Wilcox admitted she and Hastie were childhood friends and Wilcox even took time after the trial to gloat about the acquittal to Lagniappe’s reporter.
Outside that, there are still the issues of potential tax evasion and jury tampering in Hastie’s upcoming retrial.
Maybe the government over-reached. Maybe the federal laws are just too complex and offer too much wiggle room or maybe Hastie didn’t technically break the laws she was charged with violating. The jury obviously felt that way. But it’s hard not to feel like she got away with something.
This trial pulled aside the curtain on a public official who is clearly operating in a deceptive, good-ol’-boy, backroom way that landed her in hot water. Hastie has no one to blame but herself for the Feds coming after her. She and her cronies can claim harassment and conspiracy, but she clearly lies and manipulates and has used her power in most questionable ways, which put her in the danger zone.
Maybe in the world of Mobile County politics nobody cares much as long as we have 10-minute tags for our pickups and bass boats, but the positions she holds and hopes to hold have big budgets and little oversight. The FBI won’t always be a-knockin’ to make Hastie tell the truth and the County Commission has historically been rather uninterested in what’s happening in License and Revenue. And Hastie never has to deal with the unpleasantness of regular public meetings.
Unless the Feds win their tax case against Hastie it looks like we’re stuck with her at least until the next election. I don’t know if she’ll look at this as a license to do whatever she wants or a warning shot across her bow, but if Hastie can mend her ways, earn back voters’ trust and eventually become worthy of holding public office, she’ll ultimately have this prosecution to thank.