With three days left in his term as an Anniston councilman, Ben Little was found guilty by a judge Friday of overreaching his authority, a charge for which the sentence included removal from office.
The end of Little’s term on Monday renders that removal a moot point. But the finding by Calhoun County District Judge Mannon Bankson that Little violated the Council-Manager Act, a state law that describes Anniston’s form of government, was something of a rarity.
Bankson ruled that Little illegally ordered a city employee this summer to give him a copy of surveillance footage of an alleged theft at the Anniston city garage in June. Under the Council-Manager Act, City Council members are barred from individually giving orders to any city employee.
The guilty verdict came with a 90-day suspended jail sentence, six months probation, a $100 fine and removal from office. Those provisions won’t be enforced, though, at least until after a two-week period in which Little can appeal the verdict.
After the trial, Little’s attorney, Raymond Johnson, said they’ll appeal Bankson’s ruling and request a jury trial.
“We respect the decision of the court, but we disagree with it 100 percent,” Johnson said. “We’re very convinced a jury will reverse this verdict.”
It’s a verdict that hasn’t been handed down much in Alabama, if at all.
“I’ve been here 11 years and I’ve never known anyone to be convicted under the Council-Manager Act,” said Lori Lein, general counsel for the Alabama League of Municipalities.
She allowed that she would probably have heard if a violation had occurred, given that “only a handful” of Alabama cities govern themselves under council-manager rule.
Little’s last day in office will be Monday, after he lost a bid for a fourth term to Seyram Selase in the Aug. 28 election. Little said after the trial he will continue with a challenge to the results of that election, in which he alleges the city violated several laws.
The charge against Little involved his asking James Fluker, who at the time was an employee of the city’s Street Department, to get him a copy of footage showing the theft of trailers and other city equipment from the Anniston city garage on June 15.
Little’s trial began Tuesday, but was suspended for three days after Fluker, currently an inmate at the Calhoun County Jail on unrelated charges, suffered a seizure and collapsed while giving testimony.
Fluker returned to the stand Friday morning to finish his testimony after doctors said he was well enough to continue testimony.
Fluker became agitated several times during cross-examination, declining repeatedly to answer certain questions and accusing Johnson of trying to intimidate him. At one point Fluker said to Assistant District Attorney Randy Moeller that Johnson was “scaring” him, and Bankson asked Johnson to step back from the witness.
“Nobody in this courtroom can do anything to harm you,” Bankson said to Fluker. “All we want is for you to tell the truth.”
Johnson said Fluker’s statements on the stand, including his repeated insistence that he did not remember most of the events he was asked about, contradicted some of what he had told police in a signed document. Johnson asked Fluker to read that piece of evidence aloud in the courtroom. Fluker initially refused, before admitting he was illiterate.
Moeller objected to Johnson’s questioning on several occasions, accusing the attorney of deliberately confusing Fluker and repeating the same questions.
“He’s entitled to cross-examine the witness, but he’s not entitled to be cross,” Moeller said.
Bankson admitted even he was confused by some of the defense attorney’s questioning, and said he had a hard time following the timeline of events which spanned several days and touched on many meetings Fluker said he had with city employees regarding the DVD.
“You’re confusing me with the question,” Bankson said. “I know you’re confusing him.”
It was a noticeably contentious courtroom proceeding with Fluker accusing the defense of intimidation, several objections from both sets of attorneys, and Johnson and Moeller often trying to talk over each another. At one point Johnson became angry, standing up from his chair while objecting to the prosecution’s referring to his client as Mr. Little.
“Do you have a problem with referring to him as Reverend Little?” Johnson asked while leaning toward the prosecution’s bench.
Moeller referred to Little as “the defendant” for the remainder of the trial.
After Fluker’s testimony, Johnson asked Bankson to dismiss the case based on lack of evidence — a motion which Bankson denied.
The defense called two witnesses to the stand. Michael Williams, a Street Department employee and co-worker of Fluker, and Teresa Burton, a friend of Fluker’s family. Both witnesses testified that Fluker told them he felt intimidated and threatened by city employees, including the city’s Public Works Director Bob Dean. Burton said Fluker told her Anniston police offered him a week’s paid vacation for a written statement accusing Little of ordering him to give him the DVD.
Fluker testified earlier that he received no vacation time in exchange for the statement. Moeller also pointed out that Fluker was arrested on unrelated charges after the statement had been made, and no possible bargain could have been struck prior to his statement to police.
If Little files no appeal within 14 days, the sentence imposed by Bankson will take effect, the judge said.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.