Last week, a 23-count indictment was handed down by a Lee County grand jury to Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard that alleged corruption from his time as Alabama Republican Party chairman up through his time as the state’s top lawmaker.
That may sound like business as usual in Montgomery – some public official goes down with regards to corruption and nothing changes.
This time, however, there are a few key differences.
Historically, these types of state government public corruption investigations have been function of federal law enforcement. The 2010 probe that led to the arrests of four state senators, a handful of lobbyists and gambling mogul Milton McGregor was a federal investigation. Same goes for last decade’s corruption proceedings involving former Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.
But a major corruption indictment from state law enforcement, especially with one political party in control of the state government, is uncharted territory.
To understand this indictment, you have to go back a few years.
It took 136 years, but in 2010 the Republican Party in Alabama won control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. At the time, GOP candidates were aided by an unpopular President Barack Obama, and thus able to ride the coattails of the Tea Party movement into power.
Following that historic victory, Hubbard apparently wanted to keep riding that wave. He wrote a book about it and went on a book tour that led to his name being bandied about as a potential 2014 Republican gubernatorial candidate, especially as newly elected Gov. Robert Bentley’s term got off to a shaky start.
Hubbard also attempted to install allies in key positions around state politics, including at the helm of the Alabama Republican Party, the position he had held through the 2010 wave election cycle. The contest for his successor came down between then-State Rep. Jay Love, a Hubbard pick, and then-party Vice Chairman Bill Armistead. And it was an ugly one.
Armistead prevailed and after doing so, almost immediately conducted an audit of the organization’s records during the 2010 election cycle. What that revealed was that Hubbard inked a deal with Majority Strategies of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. for $848,687 to produce campaign flyers for a number of Republican candidates vying for office in the state legislature. Majority Strategies, however, subcontracted much of that work out to a local printer, Craftmaster Printers – a company Hubbard owned in part at the time.
Armistead cried foul and pushed for the findings to be made public and that is likely the root of the entire corruption investigation surrounding Hubbard. While Hubbard was touting his victory, another familiar name in Republican circles was also on the rise: newly elected Attorney General Luther Strange.
A Hubbard-Strange rivalry at the time seemed like a possibility, but it looked as if they had their eyes on two different prizes in the long run, with Hubbard in the governor’s mansion and Strange in a U.S. Senate seat, should Sens. Richard Shelby or Jeff Sessions ever step down.
Whether it was political ambitions and pressure from those Strange needed in his corner, or whether it was Strange sensing something afoul totally unrelated to politics, we’ll probably never know why the AG approved the investigation that led to Hubbard’s indictment.
Eventually, Strange recused himself from the investigation and made the decision to appoint former St. Clair County District Attorney W. Van Davis as the lead prosecutor on the ordeal.
It’s not entirely clear why Strange recused himself. In interviews, Strange has said it was to avoid the appearance of a political agenda playing out.
But, when the Attorney General is an elected office, aren’t politics an everyday reality of the office?
Still, the investigation proceeded and dragged on for years. Hubbard’s eventual indictment became the worst-kept secret in Alabama politics.
Did the special panel overreach?
A 23-count indictment, a who’s who of the Alabama power structure, suggests the special prosecutor was aiming for something to stick. But the interpretation of the state ethics law by that grand jury in the language of the indictment does raise some questions.
Some have interpreted the law to suggest that anyone in the state legislature is forbidden from conducting business with any party that may benefit from pending legislation. At face value, that seems to be a good idea. However, being a state legislator is only a part-time job and many elected representatives have full-time jobs as their primary source of income.
Likewise Hubbard is somewhat of a statewide media mogul, having controlling stakes in not only Craftmaster Printers, but the Auburn Network, which syndicates the radio broadcasts of Auburn University athletic events around the state and beyond.
That begs the question, is Hubbard unable to accept advertising from the RSA, Alabama Power, the AEA or even Auburn University since any of those entities at any time could have pending legislation that affects their bottom lines?
That seems to be the suggestion from some, but a closer look at the ethics law provides an explanation: “No public official or public employee shall, other than in the ordinary course of business, solicit a thing of value from a subordinate or person or business with whom he or she directly inspects, regulates, or supervises in his or her official capacity.”
The key term being “other than in the ordinary course of business.”
That leaves either one of two possibilities – there is a gross misinterpretation of state ethics law or this special panel found something it believes to be a much more serious wrongdoing than any of the aforementioned possible indiscretions.
The curious timing of the release of the indictment, two weeks before state office elections, also raises questions. It likely does very little in affecting the outcome of next week’s midterm elections, but down the road it may impact who state legislature Republicans rally around to be their caucus’ leader, be it Hubbard or someone else.
Understanding the ins and outs of this is a bit of a heavy lift. The natural response is to chalk this up as Montgomery being a perpetual cesspool of corruption, whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge. But in this instance, it is either a case of a prosecutor who cried wolf, or perhaps there is a new-found seriousness in getting to the bottom of the corruption that has existed in Montgomery for the last century.