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Nearly $100K disappeared from a campaign account. No one seems willing to investigate

In 2018, Rep. Ritchie Whorton reported the theft. Three years later, there’s been little investigation. No one will say why.

In the fall of 2018, state Rep. Ritchie Whorton received a weird call. It came from the office of the Alabama speaker of the House, and the person on the other end told Whorton that he had an outstanding invoice for services related to his recent campaign for office. The vendor had gone unpaid for months. Frustrated, they reached out to the speaker for help.

Whorton found it all very odd since his campaign account was being managed by the same people who managed his campaign: Red Brick Strategies and its owner, Trent Willis. All bills from the campaign should have been paid, and checking the balance of the campaign account through the filings with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office — the only means Whorton said he had for checking the balance — showed there was plenty of cash available to cover the outstanding bill.  

“I didn’t even have the password that allowed me access to the account at the bank,” Whorton told me during a phone interview a couple of weeks ago. But when Whorton attempted to contact Willis about the unpaid bill, something strange happened: He couldn’t seem to get Willis on the phone. Or to answer an email. Or to respond to a text message. Whorton started to get a bad feeling. 

A few days later, after gaining access to his account, those fears were realized. Whorton said “right at $100,000” was gone. “Stolen,” Whorton says — by Willis. And even worse, about $30,000 in bills were outstanding and would have to be paid out of Whorton’s pocket. 

Whorton was angry. He said he reached out to party officials, and well-known and respected consultant Steve Raby got involved. Raby, who has a background in forensic economics, looked through the Whorton campaign’s financial records and pretty easily located the questionable withdrawals. Then, Raby and Whorton went to see Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall — taking with them a mountain of paperwork, including old checks, spreadsheets, bank statements and meticulous notes — to report what they believed was a crime. 

Actually, several crimes, they thought. Not only was about $100,000 gone from Whorton’s account, there had also been “13 fraudulent campaign finance reports” filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, Whorton said. For those, Whorton said he called Secretary of State John Merrill’s office and spoke with one of Merrill’s top assistants. 

In a recent phone interview, Merrill confirmed that Whorton called and that some initial work had been done on the case. Merrill acknowledged that “quite a bit of money was missing” from Whorton’s accounts and that inaccurate campaign finance reports had been filed. However, Merrill said his office was informed that another agency was handling the investigation — which he said was standard practice — and the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t pursue it further. 

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“That’s not uncommon, and that’s what would occur if someone told us that a crime had been committed,” Merrill said. “We can refer it to the attorney general or to the appropriate DA or to the Ethics Commission. It sounds like it was referred to the AG’s office, and that would be appropriate.”

At Marshall’s office, Whorton and Raby met with a couple of investigators. They laid out their evidence, highlighted how the alleged crimes occurred and offered to be of assistance in any way possible. Whorton said they were thanked for their effort and told they would hear something in the near future. 

They also had one other piece of evidence: In the weeks since discovering the alleged crimes had occurred, Whorton said he made contact with Willis, and according to Whorton, Willis had confessed to the theft. They also told the AG’s investigators of the confession. 

That was in October 2018. To date, nearly three years later, they have heard nothing from Marshall’s office. 

The Search for Info

In fact, Whorton said he can get no information at all, even when he places calls to find out what is happening with the case. Would-be witnesses to the alleged crimes, including former Red Brick employees and employees at the financial institution where the campaign account records were kept, also say they’ve not been contacted. And there is no record of Trent Willis ever being charged with a crime — at least, not one related to Whorton’s campaign finances. 

In the days following Whorton’s discovery, Willis all but vanished. In a matter of a couple of weeks, Red Brick, one of the more prominent advertising firms in Alabama, was shuttered and its entire office, including client files with proprietary information, was sold at auction. Creditors and clients lined up, with several lawsuits filed against Willis and his company. And Willis, described by his co-workers and former friends as a “charismatic, charming” man, receded into the shadows. 

That is … until a few months ago, when his name showed up in court documents for a case unrelated to Red Brick’s unpaid bills. As it turns out, the AG’s office was having conversations with Willis. Only, not as a suspected criminal, but as a state’s witness in one of the biggest cases Marshall has ever brought.

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The State of Alabama v. Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely 

Blakely was charged in 2019 with 11 counts of theft and ethics violations. One of those charges involved a $4,000 check sent to Blakely from Red Brick Strategies. Additionally, Red Brick and Willis worked with Blakely, a 10-term sheriff, on his most recent campaigns. 

Willis’ name as a witness in the Blakely case has led Whorton and others to speculate that maybe there’s no case being pursued against Willis because it would damage his credibility as a witness — particularly since Willis would apparently be testifying about alleged ethics violations involving misspent campaign funds.   

“It’s the weirdest handling of a case that I can ever recall, but it makes more sense if he’s (the state’s) witness,” said a long-time political consultant who is familiar with the details of Whorton’s case and who has been involved in several ethics cases in the past. “Here’s a sitting state representative providing the AG with evidence of a specific crime, and they’re just not working it. That doesn’t make sense, unless the AG’s office needs (Willis) for something else.

“It could be that the AG’s office has indicted Willis but sealed the indictment until after he completes his testimony against (Blakely). Some sort of a plea deal or something along those lines. But to do that would require some investigative work, and we know for a fact that the witnesses haven’t been formally interviewed and the bank records haven’t been subpoenaed. So, I just don’t know what’s going on here.” 

Questions On Top Of Questions

Making the matter even more baffling is the fact that Whorton isn’t alone. Five sources — all of whom either worked at Red Brick, was a Red Brick client or worked for a client — told me that as many as 12 other clients had considered legal action against Red Brick. Most of those cases did not involve outright theft, the sources said, but instead involved some combination of Willis either over-charging for services or failing to deliver on services. 

One former client who ultimately opted not to pursue legal recourse against Willis said he “clearly didn’t give me what the contract stated — not even close really — but you have to question how far you want to take it and how much time and money you’re willing to spend on it. I chalked it up as a learning experience and moved on.”

I attempted numerous times to reach Willis, calling on listed and unlisted numbers I got for him. I checked at two different addresses listed on recent court filings, including the address that state prosecutors used on his subpoena. Earlier this year, a private investigator working for an attorney’s office said he couldn’t find him either. 

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In an effort to understand why the case isn’t being pursued, I emailed Marshall’s communications director Mike Lewis. I told them in detail what Whorton and others told me and I asked for specific or general information to help explain the oddity of this situation. 

A day later, Lewis emailed back only to say that the AG’s office wouldn’t comment on ongoing or potential investigations.

I wasn’t the only one asking questions. In February 2020, attorneys for Blakely — one of the last remaining Democrats serving in a Republican-heavy county — filed a motion with the Limestone County Circuit Court asking that the state reveal all deals it had made with witnesses against Blakely. 

According to two sources familiar with the court case, Blakely’s attorneys were specifically looking for information about Willis, who was on the state’s subpoena list and is the only witness related to two of the charges against Blakely. During a hearing about the defense’s motion asking that the state reveal all deals, a source present at the hearing said a state prosecutor told the court that no deal involving Willis existed. 

I also asked the AG’s office about this specific allegation in the email. Lewis did not provide a specific answer. 

Whatever the explanation, the fact that Willis is in this predicament is a stunning fall from grace for one of the most popular and politically connected advertising agencies in the state. 

Over the course of five years, between 2014 and 2019, Red Brick Strategies took in more than $270,000 in payments from various campaigns and political action committees. That number doesn’t include money made from projects contracted through local and state government offices or projects with private companies that resulted from Red Brick’s work with politicians. Former employees who worked at Red Brick say the small firm could have easily raked in well over a million dollars.  

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The firm’s biggest client was Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, for whom Willis had served as chief of staff. Willis and Red Brick managed Battle’s campaigns for mayor and his unsuccessful run for governor in 2018. 

Red Brick did work primarily for Republicans, but also worked for a handful of Democrats, primarily in the Huntsville area. The firm also did work on some of the city of Huntsville’s biggest projects and for some of Huntsville’s biggest private businesses. 

Life At Red Brick

For Dustin Timbrook, working for Red Brick as the creative director was, at first, pretty much a dream job. He was working on big, meaningful projects and doing work for some of Huntsville’s biggest businesses. He was connected to the community and his art was noticeable and impactful. 

But in 2017, small things started to take their toll. Willis, who had been a happy, wining-and-dining sort of boss, had transformed, at times, into an overbearing, hyper-critical control freak. At other times, though, Willis was almost completely disengaged from the business, and small things began to fall through the cracks. Then big things did. 

“Deadlines were missed and some materials that were needed for the campaign were never delivered,” said a source familiar with Willis’ work on Battle’s gubernatorial campaign. “There was also a major difference of opinion on some things, and instead of taking direction, Trent just went with what he wanted to do. It was a disaster.

“Don’t get me wrong, that’s not what led to the defeat. But it didn’t help. And it wasn’t long after that that (Battle) decided it was time to part ways with Trent.”

Timbrook, however, was already gone from Red Brick. The final straw for him, as he posted on Reddit in late 2018, was a letter from the federal government alerting him to his options for health insurance. It was the standard letter all uninsured people get, except for one thing: Timbrook was paying for insurance. 

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When he investigated the matter, he discovered that while monthly premiums had been removed from his paycheck to cover the cost of insurance, Willis had not actually paid for the employee coverage, Timbrook said. He had spent most of the year without health insurance. 

“That was pretty much it for me,” Timbrook said. “There had been so much go on and so many people leave, but I had remained loyal. Maybe not to Trent, but to the work and the clients. But when that happened, I knew I couldn’t continue on there.”

In the weeks that followed his departure, Timbrook said he received dozens of calls from former coworkers and clients, most of them with a story to tell about Willis and unfulfilled promises. 

Two of the people Timbrook spoke with were Ritchie Whorton and his wife, Shirley. The Whortons were genuinely confused by Willis’ alleged betrayal. Timbrook was hurt by an employer who essentially pulled a rug from under him. They bonded and shared what information about Willis and the case that they could get. 

They also commiserated in their mutual confusion about the lack of progress in the case. The Whortons told Timbrook of their conversations with attorneys and others at the AG’s office. 

At some point, the weird track of the case started to worry Ritchie Whorton. He suspected that maybe someone believed he was really responsible for the missing money, or that the AG’s office was going to try and pin it all on him because he isn’t a popular or well-known lawmaker. 

When I spoke to him a few days ago, Whorton still seemed to hold those fears. Numerous times, he said he was worried about getting the blame. He went out of his way to explain how little he knew about the money. 

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“I just don’t know what’s going on,” Whorton said. “I trusted someone to do a job, and I thought I was doing the right thing by staying as far away from the money as I could get. When I found out something was wrong, I reported it as quick as I could. Even provided them evidence of what happened. For it to stretch on like this, and no one tell you what’s happening, yeah … I don’t know. Something’s not right.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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