A federal judge today changed the conditions of release for Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie preventing her or her attorneys from conducting further interviews with her employees during regular business hours or at any of the license commission’s five offices.
A hearing on the issue before United States Magistrate Katherine Nelson was called after Hastie’s attorney Buzz Jordan conducted interviews with multiple license commission employees on a day the office was closed to the public in late January.
Today, federal prosecutors argued the circumstances of the interviews and the manner in which they were conducted could have seemed intimidating to Hastie’s employees, even though she wasn’t physically present during the interviews.
Hastie is represented by the Hanley Law Firm, as well as Jordan, who have both acknowledged where and when the interviews took place. But in court today, Jordan denied any accusation of using intimidating tactics.
U.S. Attorney Gregory A. Bordenkircher also said Jordan’s use of the county facility would have required approval from Hastie or someone else within the License Commission. Based on the use of the facility and employees’ time, federal prosecutors say the interviews violated Alabama Code 36-25-5, which prevents the use of government property for personal gain.In his rebuttal, Jordan accused federal prosecutors of communicating with License Commission employees in a similar manner — citing several emails between federal agents and one of Hastie’s employees sent and received during business hours.
Prosecutors didn’t deny the allegations, but called the case’s managing agent, Ketrick Kelley, to the stand for clarification. Kelley said he regularly speaks to about four to five of Hastie’s employees, some of whom have provided information to federal prosecutors obtained using equipment owned by the license commission.
Hastie’s defense also claimed one of the employees in regular contact with the FBI has been circulating a petition among Hastie’s employees “attempting to get a material witness for defense fired.” Federal prosecutors and agents said Jordan’s claims were the first they heard of such a petition.
Jordan and attorney Neil Hanley argued that type of communication was comparable “if not worse” than the allegations made against Hastie. However, Bordenkircher said the employees the government is using contacted the FBI voluntarily and were not “compelled” to participate in the investigation through their employer.
Bordenkircher called the process of the interviews “Orwellian” because they were conducted in a public building with hundreds of cameras Hastie has access to, were prompted by Hastie’s own secretary and were held in Hastie’s personal conference room.
During his testimony, Kelley said multiple employees he’d spoken with weren’t told why they were being led to the conference room, and initially thought they might have been in trouble. Kelley said many of the witnesses claimed they also felt “compelled to speak” to Jordan because the interviews were conducted during working hours.
Jordan and Hanley vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying the government was only trying to prohibit them from building a proper defense. Hanley also said an order preventing those types of interviews would “violate Hastie’s Constitutional rights” to a fair trial and effective counsel.
Though he again denied it, Hanley said the original indictment’s accusation of an “environment of intimidation” created by Hastie remains a large part of the government’s extortion charges. The defense also said the accusations of intimidation were “lies” and “based on complaints from a couple of malcontents.”
In his closing arguments, Hanley said speaking to Hastie’s employees is the only way to defend against such allegations, which is something the defense attempted to do in Hastie’s office out of “convenience for everyone involved.”
Bordenkircher said conducting the interviews wasn’t a problem at all, but doing so in a work setting would use taxpayer-funded property and compel employees to participate, whether the effect was intentional or not.
“They have every right to interview witnesses, and employees have the right to choose whether or not they want to talk to an attorney just like an agent,” he said. “(Jordan) can do the interviews after hours, at his office or he can take them on vacation. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Despite claims of violating Hastie’s constitutional rights, Nelson ruled in favor of federal prosecutors saying “employees would feel compelled to participate” in interviews conducted at the License Commission office. She also said preventing the defense from continuing that practice would not preclude Hastie from “mounting a full defense.”
An additional request to prevent Hastie from accessing information about License Commission employees without first issuing a subpoena was declared a “moot point” by Nelson after the parties had addressed the issue themselves.