After nearly four years of legal limbo in the state’s appellate court system, the Alabama Supreme Court on Friday upheld six of the criminal convictions against former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R- Auburn, though it also voted to overturn five others.
In 2014, while still serving as speaker of the House, Hubbard was indicted on 23 criminal charges related to the use of his elected position in the Legislature and as the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party for his own personal gain — most of which were violations of the 2010 state ethics law he helped write.
The indictment was the result of a lengthy special grand jury investigation in Lee County. Nearly two years after his indictment, a jury of his peers convicted Hubbard of 12 of those 23 counts.
Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob Walker sentenced Hubbard to four years in state prison, but he immediately appealed and has remained free on bond for years as state courts have evaluated and reevaluated his case.
In 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned one of his remaining charges and last year the justices on the Alabama Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an appeal of the final 11 charges.
With five of those now tossed out as well, it’s unclear what kind of prison time Hubbard might see.
With today’s ruling, Hubbard’s case is remanded back to the court of criminal appeals and will likely wind up before Walker again in the courtroom for sentencing proceedings in line with the higher courts’ rulings.
In their opinion, the justices agreed with the lower courts’ finding that, in at least in six of the 11 counts, Hubbard had clearly “used his official position or office to obtain personal gain” at a time when he was “experiencing personal financial difficulties” in his private career.
“Our role as justices is not to praise or question the wisdom of the Ethics Code or to reprove or excuse Hubbard’s behavior. We must interpret and apply the law. And every person accused of breaking the law — even one who had a hand in creating that law — is entitled to (and bound by) the same rules of legal interpretation,” the opinion reads. “When charged with a crime, public officials must be treated no better — and no worse — than other citizens in this State where all are guaranteed equal justice under law.”
In addition to the main opinion, there were some dissenting opinions and special writings related to who Alabama’s ethics law defines as a principal or the person on whose behalf a lobbyist engages in lobbying a public official.
In this instance, the purported principal was Will Brooke, an executive of an asset management firm and the chairman of the Business Council of Alabama prior to Hubbard’s indictment.
Among other things, the state alleged Hubbard sought financial advice from Brooke as well as potential clients for his consulting work. While Brooke never found any consulting clients, Hubbard was ultimately convicted on six counts related to loans Brooke helped secure for a business partially owned by Hubbard, one Brooke ultimately invested in himself while still with the BCA.
The other investors included Sterne Agee Group, Inc., Jimmy Rane, president of Great Southern Wood and Rob Burton, president of Hoar Construction. One of the five charges dismissed by the high court was related to Hubbard soliciting those investments and four others were the result of receiving them.
Overturning the decisions of a Lee County jury and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the high court found that, in seeking and receiving the investments, Hubbard did not “solicit or receive a thing of value” from a lobbyist’s principal because — in its interpretation — Brooke wasn’t technically a principal for BCA’s lobbyists because he did not personally hire them.
Even though five convictions were overturned, at least one justice argued that all of them should have been. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Will Sellers said he supported the court’s decision to overturn the five counts it had but wanted to see the other six tossed out as well.
Others, like Justice Tommy Bryan, expressed concerns about the ethics laws but maintained that Hubbard broke the law he helped author after he organized the Republican takeover of both bodies in the Alabama Legislature after decades of Democratic majorities in the Yellowhammer State.
“I must begin by noting that I have serious concerns about some of the language used in the current version of the Alabama Ethics Code, some of which I find to be inexplicably broad and somewhat confusing. Thus, I encourage the Legislature to take immediate action to once again revise and clarify the language of the Ethics Code,” Bryan wrote. “However, after a thorough and exhaustive review of the pertinent provisions of the Ethics Code and the arguments presented to this Court, I can reach no other conclusion than that the convictions on count 6 and counts 10 through 14 must be affirmed. Even under the most broad reading of the specific provisions of the Ethics Code at issue in this case, the record contains several key facts that require me to conclude that a reasonable juror, faced with the evidence that was presented, could have found Hubbard guilty of violating the Ethics Code as charged.”
In a final separate order, Justice Greg Shaw explained that he recused himself from presiding over the case because a law firm he held shares in prior to his position on the high court “represented person(s) in connection with this case while [he] was an attorney there.”
Following the ruling on Friday, Gov Kay Ivey issued a statement saying she supported the result and was also open to reviewing the state’s ethics laws.
“Today’s ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court is the culmination of four years of deliberation, and I support and accept their findings. As an elected official, our first priority is to be above reproach and avoid even the appearance of misconduct and abuse of office,” Ivey wrote. “I support seeking clarity on our state’s ethics laws to ensure those who want to abide by them may not be unfairly targeted. However, let me be abundantly clear, I do not support weakening a system that is meant to hold our elected officials accountable. The rule of law must be upheld.”
Attorney General Steve Marshall also issued a public statement saying that he was pleased to see a portion of Hubbard’s convictions upheld, adding that it’s “well past time for Mike Hubbard to serve the time he has so richly earned.” However, Marshall also said that he was disappointed in the court’s interpretation of who is considered a lobbying principle and suggested their definition weakened the law.
“While I can live with the court’s insistence on a clearer definition of principal, going forward, that definition must also be strong,” Marshall wrote. “This case was not just a trial of former Speaker Hubbard’s misconduct, but also a test of our ethics law. Hubbard campaigned in 2010 on the message that Alabama ‘sorely needed’ a stronger ethics law. As a state, we must now ask ourselves a serious question: Do we want the type of behavior that Hubbard got away with to be illegal? If the answer is yes, then legislative action is again sorely needed and we must commit to strengthening our ethics law.”
In his statement, Marshall went on to commend several members of his staff who represented the state of Alabama during Hubbard’s appeal as well as “many others whose hard work over many years made this victory possible.”
While it’s unclear who those “others” are, Marshall’s statement made no mention of one of the most central figures of the case. The special investigation in Lee County and Hubbard’s prosecution were both spearheaded by former Assistant Attorney General Matt Hart, who was the former chief of the special prosecution division of the AG’s office.
Despite his successful conviction in Hubbard’s case and in several other high-profile public corruption cases, Hart was terminated by Marshall shortly after Marshall’s election in 2018.
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