Testimony: Lee County DA’s Office felt like a frat house with drinking and video games

Alabama

OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – Testimony indicates a suspected office affair between the now-former Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes and one of his assistant prosecutors kick-started one of seven felony charges Hughes is now facing inside a Lee County Courtroom.

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office indicted Hughes on five ethics violations, using his public office for private gain. One allegation involves paying $14,000 from the District Attorney’s fund to an attorney helping Hughes settle an alleged sex discrimination claim involving a former employee. Hughes is also accused of illegally hiring his three grown children to work in the DA’s Office, issuing a subpoena to a private business to gather evidence for his potential criminal defense. Hughes is also charged with conspiring to steal a pickup from a Chambers County business using a Lee County search warrant and perjury.

Testimony began Wednesday inside the same Lee County Justice Center where Hughes was elected and began serving as the area’s top prosecutor in 2017. He was placed on paid administrative leave in 2020 after his arrest, and current Lee County DA Pro-Tem Jessica Ventiere was appointed to take over the office. Ventiere was the first witness for the Alabama Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Division. Wednesday morning, Ventiere was sworn in and testified with Hughes in charge the DA’s office felt like a fraternity house.

“It felt a little like Mad Men; I guess if you have seen that show. There was a lot of drinking in the office. It was probably more relaxed than it should be for a professional office. There were electronic gaming systems brought in to play Guitar Hero. It was frat-house-ish at times,” testified Ventiere.

Ventiere testified in the first part of 2018 there were reports Hughes was having an affair with one of his prosecutors he had hired in October of 2017. Ventiere testified she suspected the pair’s relationship changed after returning from a conference in Birmingham in January of 2018. Ventiere testified she saw Stokes curled up on a chair in Hughe’s office where the two would watch movies.

“I was very concerned based on observations and based on interactions I had with other people in the office that an inappropriate relationship had formed between Taylor Lee Stokes and Mr. Hughes,” testified Ventiere.

Ventiere testified she requested to meet with Hughes in February of 2018 after hearing reports a custodian feared her job was at risk after a late-night office incident involving Stokes coming out of Hughes’s office while the custodian was cleaning.

“The custodian staff walked in on some sort of intimate or inappropriate event between Ms. Hughes and Ms. Stokes; they had been in Mr. Hughes’s office. The lights were out, and that Ms. Stokes came out of the office and slammed the door with lipstick smeared on her face, and her hair was messed up. She approached the custodian employee and said, don’t tell anybody; that is what was reported to me,” testified Ventiere.

Ventiere says she looked into the incident and asked Hughes to meet with her a few days later. Ventiere testified Hughes asked her what he should do. Ventiere testified she believed Stokes should leave the office because the custodian felt her job was at risk based on what she saw.

“He was concerned terminating her would only confirm they were having an affair. He said offer her an opportunity to resign, and I said, if she doesn’t, what do you want me to do? And he said terminate her,” testified Ventiere.

Ventiere called Stokes to her office that same day, and Stokes resigned.

During opening statements, prosecutors told jurors Hughes helped Stokes secure a job as a Chambers County prosecutor. Prosecutors say Hughes was notified Stokes was in the process of potentially filing a sex discrimination lawsuit. Hughes allegedly worked with an attorney to arrange a $45,000 settlement for Stokes, which prosecutors say Hughes took out a personal loan to pay. Prosecutors say Hughes acted illegally when paying for his attorney’s fee. They claim Hughes took out $14,000 from the Distinct Attorneys Fund, which is taxpayer money, to pay his attorney to settle the private matter.

Hughes’s defense team maintains their client is innocent and had no criminal intent in their opening statement to the jury. His defense team says Hughes participated fully in the investigation because he didn’t do anything wrong. His defense will have an opportunity to present their side of the case when the prosecution finishes calling their witnesses. Testimony is expected to continue Thursday in the trial. It is not known if Hughes will take the stand in his defense.

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