After a half-day of deliberations, the opening statements from prosecutors and the defense gave two vastly different explanations for why Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie and Deputy License Commissioner Ramona Yeager were in federal court this morning.
In a 17-count indictment originally handed down last November, the pair is charged with conspiracy to defraud taxpayers through mail fraud, wire fraud and falsified invoices submitted to the Mobile County Commission through a long-time contractor named Victor Crawford.
As was laid out in the initial indictment, prosecutors allege Hastie, with Yeager’s help, finalized Crawford invoices in order to hide public relations work her office racked up from the County Commission, which oversees Hastie’s budget.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sinan Kalayoglu told jurors this morning in a nutshell, Hastie “believes she is above law.” In addition to the conspiracy charges, Hastie is also being charged under the Hobbs Act for extortion.Kalayoglu told the jury the extortion charge is rooted in the allegation Hastie “intimidated and threatened” Crawford into hiding payments from her office to the public relations firm Strateco, paying qualifying fees for her election and purchasing televisions, iPads and other electronics for a License Commission Christmas party.
The alleged incidents took place on several occasions beginning in 2012 after Hastie was reelected to her position. According to Kalayoglu, Hastie showed a pattern of “criminal behavior over several years,” arguing she also had no desire for transparency to the taxpayer or the county government.
Prosecutors also took the opportunity to distance the criminal charges from the Hastie’s well-known “10-minute tag” campaign pledge, which perhaps predictably, defense attorneys triumphed minutes later.
Kalayoglu countered, suggesting Crawford — who manages the License Commission’s information technology, software and computer programming through an exclusive contract — was actually the driving force behind new efficiencies at the tag office.
In his own opening statements, defense attorney Neil Hanley called the prosecution’s claims false and pointed out Crawford’s contract with the License Commission predated Hastie’s first term by years.
While Kalayoglu said Crawford had “no choice but to do what Hastie said because he feared for his employment,” Hanley said the opposite was true.
According to the defense, Crawford setup the software necessary to run Hastie’s office and she needed him. Yeager’s attorney Dennis Knizley echoed that theory, adding Crawford had “free reign” at the License Commission, as he had with his previous public contracts with the Mobile County Commission, the Mobile County Probate Court and the Mobile County Engineering Department.
Prior to Hastie’s indictment, Lagniappe began examining Crawford’s employment records and contracts with Mobile County and as of today, Crawford is only contracted by the License Commission. According to county records supplied to Lagniappe, Crawford’s company APL Software was paid more than $6,312,462 from 1999 to September 2014.
Hanley said the substantial IT expenses were exactly what Hastie was trying to reign in once she took office in 2008. He said there was no “atmosphere of intimidation” as prosecutors have alleged but alternately, argued Hastie created an “atmosphere of accountability,” which some employees weren’t happy with.
According to Hanley, Crawford and Hastie were friends — a relationship established through a mutual friendship with longtime County Engineer Joe Ruffer. Both Ruffer and Hastie have discussed a personal friendship with Crawford in the past, one that included taking trips on Crawford’s private plane.
In his opening statements, Hanley said the case revolves around Crawford. He worked to paint a picture of a disgruntled employee turning on his friends and going to the FBI.
Hanley also said the “falsified invoices” to Strateco weren’t finalized at all and referenced Crawford’s contract with Mobile County, which states that he “may be provided additional personnel as assigned by the License Commission.”
Despite the prosecution’s claims, Hanley said there were no illegal or improper payments. He said work public relations consultant Chad Tucker and Strateco performed would fall under the “additional personnel” clause of Crawford’s contract, or in the computer consulting line items in the license commission’s annual budget.
To bolster their case, both sides discussed multiple undercover recordings made by Crawford that will no doubt be introduced into evidence as the trial progresses, recordings that include conversations Crawford had with Yeager, Hastie, Ruffer and several other License Commission employees and county officials.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks, according to attorneys.