Reading the coverage of Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s trial, it’s hard not to come away with one very obvious conclusion — if you’re in politics in Alabama it’s good to have friends.
As the speaker attempts to fend off the 23 felony ethics violations and prosecutors who want to see him thrown in jail for allegedly using his public office for personal gain, one big-shot politico after another winds up on the stand talking about what a great friend Hubbard is and how hard they were all working to help him through financially tough times. The other takeaway here is that these people all live in a very different world from most of us, with very different expectations.
Much of Hubbard’s trouble came after he lost an outside job and wanted to replace that income. Through emails and testimony it is clear Hubbard didn’t think his family’s household income — more than $300,000 at the time he was scrambling for a new job — was enough and he was distraught. Lucky for Hubbard, some of Alabama’s most powerful politicians were equally worried about his personal finances.
Former Gov. Bob Riley’s testimony Monday is a prime example of how concerned Hubbard’s buddies were about any decline in his income.
“We had a year to figure out something,” Riley testified, referencing the year’s severance Hubbard received when he was let go by IMG. “And I think everyone who was Mike’s friend was trying to give him some suggestions.”
Riley, now a lobbyist, showed his friendship by helping Hubbard get a $12,000-a-month job consulting with Southeast Alabama Gas District. That’s what friends are for.
This actually makes me wonder what kind of lousy friends I’ve had all these years. None of them have hooked me up with a fat job like that or gotten together as a group to figure out how to make me rich. I suppose I can’t really say I’ve done that for my friends either. Maybe we don’t love each other enough.
Mike Hubbard’s friends really, really love him. They didn’t want him to quit as speaker because the measly $61,000 a year he gets there wasn’t good enough. They knew it would be a real blow to the state to lose someone like Hubbard.
So even though some are lobbyists or business owners who had business before the Legislature, they all put on their thinking caps to find ways for Mike to get more money. And that’s perfectly OK in Alabama.
You see, the ethics law has a friendship exception. It OKs “anything given by a friend of the recipient under circumstances which make it clear that it is motivated by a friendship and not given because of the recipient’s official position. Relevant factors include whether the friendship preexisted the recipient’s status as a public employee … and whether gifts have been previously exchanged between them.”
So in a bizarre way this exemption actually encourages gifting between the politically powerful as that could one day come into play during a trial.
I can just hear some lawyer say, “Let the record show the witness gave the defendant three turkey calls, two bottles of Jack Daniel’s and a Mercedes-Benz last year for Christmas. They are very close friends.”
Hubbard and Riley are such good friends Mike even named one of his kids after the former governor. So surely everything they did is OK.
Emails between Riley and Hubbard have been made public, and they show the speaker to be a fawning sycophant polishing the ex-gov’s apple while whining about his financial situation and proposing various ways he could go to work for Riley — a lobbyist! At one point Riley basically tells him he can either be powerful or make lots of money, but he might not be able to do both.
That’s kind of where both of these guys lose the average resident of this fine state, I would imagine. Hubbard and his wife brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — far more money than most Alabamians could ever dream of making. But Hubbard wanted to run with the really big dogs like Riley and big business owners, who have millions to their name. So the speaker still appears to have felt left out at the feeding trough.
What once again is more on trial than Mike Hubbard and his pack of friends is this state’s corrupt system. Every time someone summons the courage to pull back the curtain, what we discover is a shocking lack of oversight or care and a general attitude that whatever you can grab is just fine.
If a very powerful politician directs political money to his own businesses or solicits lobbyists and business owners for financial favors, just about everyone in the private sector would consider that unethical. In many states it would be illegal. Even in this state things that would be illegal aren’t if the people involved gave each other Christmas cards or play golf together.
Repeatedly I come away from reading about this trial wondering what use the Alabama Ethics Commission actually serves, because it mostly seems to be running interference for bad behavior or at most taking wishy-washy stands open to interpretation. In fairness, I guess I should also point out it has almost no power and operates under a pathetically porous law. Which brings me back to wondering why it even exists.
After more than a week of this trial it’s pretty clear Hubbard was using his clout to put money in his own pocket. Will the jury see it that way, or will loopholes in the ethics law end up being the best friend Hubbard ever had? We’ll know soon enough.