Federal prosecutors rested their case against Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie today, but not before piling on even more evidence against the defense’s position of the case.
Continuing his testimony from Friday, Strateco CEO Chad Tucker, a political consultant, testified Monday about a recording the FBI made in his office last year. In it, Tucker takes a phone call from Hastie and discusses how he was paid by a third-party contractor for work he performed in Hastie’s office at the time.
Hastie told Tucker she wanted to pay him through her IT contractor because, “working through the county was a pain in the rear.” The conversation was the third time during the trial recordings have depicted Hastie seeming to discuss bypassing the Mobile County Commission’s financial oversight. In each of those instances, Hastie was unaware she was being recorded.The IT contractor, Victor Crawford, has a “sullied” history in Mobile County government according to The defense, but has been prosecutors’ key witness throughout the trial. On Friday, Tucker told jurors that Crawford ultimately paid Strateco for public relations work in Hastie’s office — work he called “purely political.”
In 2014, Tucker created a newsletter that discussed, among other things, Hastie’s self-promoted campaign to merge the offices of Mobile County’s license and revenue commissions. Defense attorneys have called those public expenses appropriate and have repeatedly claimed they were related to the “business of the license commission.”
Defense attorney Neil Hanley compared them to several other newsletters sent out by political figures, using U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne as an example. He also asked Tucker about each of the four invoices he submitted to Hastie in 2014. Tucker testified that none were “false” “fraudulent” or “intended to trick anybody” when he submitted them to Crawford.
Tucker also said that when Hastie first sought his services in 2014, “initially it was about running for Revenue Commissioner,” then it “transitioned into merging the two offices together” after Hastie realized she was the only candidate qualified for the position. Tucker further claimed he assumed Hastie was paying him through Crawford because of budgetary restrictions.
The defense has previously suggested the social media and web work Strateco performed would also be “perfectly legal” under Crawford’s IT contract, which does permit him to add additional services “as needed” at Hastie’s discretion. However, Tucker testified that his work was not at all related to the computer programming Crawford’s company, APL Software Engineering, is paid for.
The case against Hastie spans 17 criminal counts, and a significant portion of those charges are related to the payments Strateco received for the work in 2014. Those charges comprise most of the wire and mail fraud charges against Hastie and almost all of the charges against her co-defendant, Deputy License Commissioner Ramona Yeager.
According to FBI Forensic Accountant Kathryn Scott, the invoices Strateco submitted saw several changes before finally getting paid through the county. Scott tracked the payments in their entirety, and during her direct examination she detailed how the descriptions of the work Tucker was doing changed over time.
Originally they were initially described as “Kim Hastie retainer fee,” but were later changed to “Strateco retainer fee” before finally being submitted with a description of “social media management and digital marketing.” Before they reached the county commission, four versions of Strateco’s bills were sent between the company, Hastie and Yeager.
Her defense counsel argued that Hastie wanted to “make the descriptions more accurate,” but in previously submitted video recordings Hastie can be seen saying “I can’t have it saying that” and “if it has my name on it, I’ve got to pay for it.”
When APL Software Engineering finally submitted its bills for those months, the heavily modified Strateco invoices were nowhere to be found in paperwork sent to the county commission.
Hastie also sought the services of Strategy Inc. and specifically its founder, political consultant Jonathan Gray. It’s undisputed Hastie paid Gray $10,000 to help compose legislation aimed at joining the license and revenue commission.
It’s also undisputed that those funds were improperly pulled from a segregated account funded by a $1.25 fee assessed to all electronic transactions at the license commission that is required by statute to only be used for computer and IT purchases.
Her defense attorneys claim it was a “mistake,” but prosecutors have pointed to comments Hastie and Gray made to the media suggesting the pair may have known what they were doing all along. Today, Gray took the stand for the defense.
Gray eventually returned the money, a few weeks after FBI agents raided the offices at the Mobile County License Commission and at Government Plaza. Asked about the refund in trial, Gray described it as “blood money.”
“I don’t want somebody to go to prison because they wrote me a check out of an account they shouldn’t have and didn’t know it,” Gray said. “I don’t think Kim intended to break the law in writing me that check, but that’s my opinion.”
An interview Hastie gave to Lagniappe on July 7, 2014 also became a part of the trial. Recordings from the interview were published ahead of the trial and show Hastie denying that she paid Gray anything. Gray acknowledged reading the related article but wasn’t allowed to elaborate on it after objections from the defense.
Though no one questioned whether Gray in fact returned the money, Assistant U. S. Attorney Sinan Kalayoglu questioned Gray’s motivation to return the $10,000 when he wasn’t legally required to. On the stand, Gray said it wasn’t a donation, which Kalayoglu then compared to previous statements Gray made in another Lagniappe article.
In the article, published Sept. 9, 2014, Gray was quoted as saying “No one asked me, approached me or even suggested anything to me about returning this. It just felt like the right thing to do to help her.”
However, Gray’s testimony before in this trial and in a subsequent grand jury trial from 2014 suggest he was indeed approached by the FBI and one of Hastie’s attorneys prior to making those statements. That attorney, Buzz Jordan, wrote a letter to Gray requesting he return the money to the license commission.
Gray however, maintains he “cut Jordan off” as he was speaking because he and his business partner had already decided they wanted to return the $10,000 of their own volition. He also said the comments quoted in Lagniappe were from a blanket statement he sent via text message.
Motion for acquittal
On their lunch break Monday, defense attorneys for Yeager filed a motion to acquit their client of all her conspiracy charges under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. That rule “tests the sufficiency of the evidence against defendant, and avoids the risk that a jury may capriciously find him guilty though there is no legally sufficient evidence of guilt.”
Hastie’s attorneys seemed to agree the government had fallen short of its burden, and as court resumed at 1 p.m. Judge Kristi Dubose discussed the motion with counsel from all the parties involved.
Stewart Hanley, one of Hastie’s attorneys, said the government had failed present any evidence of a “falsified invoices” from Strateco, which was the basis of its conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud charges against Hastie and Yeager. Those charges comprise the first nine against Hastie and all of the charges Yeager is facing. Dubose said she would take the motion for acquittal under advisement.
Hanley also said the government failed to produce evidence supporting counts 10-15, alleging Hastie extorted Crawford into providing Christmas gifts for her office, political contributions and facilitating the payments to Strateco.
From the bench, DuBose seemed to agree, at least in part, with the defense in that the government’s claims of extortion had fallen short in the courtroom.
“There has to be proof he was in fear for his job. Where’s that explicitly?” DuBose asked. “It can’t be just something Crawford might be think in his own mind, there has to be a meeting of the minds, not that he was fearful if he didn’t provide the gifts he would be fired. The Hobbs Act is a very serious allegation of extortion that requires explicit promise and proof of a quid pro quo.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Bordenkircher pointed to a handwritten note Hastie has left Crawford detailing what Christmas presents she wanted him to purchase for the party. Bordenkircher referred to it as a “demand,” but DuBose said his characterization is one “most favorable to the prosecution,” considering Hastie thanks Crawford at the end of the same note.
Despite the back and forth, DuBose said she would take the those statements under advisement, which means she could issue a ruling from the bench.
However, the jury will undoubtedly decide at least one aspect of the case, the 17th charge against Hastie that accuses her of knowingly disseminating more than 30,000 email addresses from Mobile County residents for a political purpose.
During his conversation with DuBose, Hanley said the “government failed to show email addresses fall within personal information in the applicable statute or that Hastie released any emails at all.”
Despite those statements, Hastie’s attorneys made no attempt to refute the multiple prosecution witnesses that testified to Hastie’s involvement with a email blast that supported Sandy Stimpson’s mayoral campaign in 2013.
As far as Count 17 is concerned, the jury could be left deciding not if Hastie knew about the emails Stimpson’s campaign received from the motor vehicle database at the license commission but whether or not emails are considered private information in the first place.
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