Hell yes, I was surprised. Not because I don’t think he deserved it, but because, like just about everyone else in Alabama, I’ve grown used to seeing the powerful and the corrupt skate away from punishment over and over.
But not this time.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s conviction last week on 12 of the 23 charges against him was a spectacular upset akin to Mohammed Ali’s takedown of the seemingly unbeatable George Foreman. Again, not because Hubbard didn’t seem like the money-grubbing schemer prosecutor Matt Hart proved him to be, but because the Alabama countryside is lined with pork-barrel politicians who did laugh all the way to the bank.
It was shocking because we in this state have a sick compulsion, much like a woman who dates guys who are in and out of trouble with the law. We love the bad boys, and a lot of people openly express admiration for those pols who “get theirs” while in office. Maybe it’s because as a state we’re kind of religiously repressed and like watching folks dance on the edge of the Lake of Fire. Or maybe we’re just kind of dumb about tossing out obvious grifters. #richardshelbyforsenate2022
We’ve all seen enough to know Alabama juries aren’t particularly tough on those very few deserving candidates who actually end up on the wrong end of a criminal indictment, so I doubt many had our hopes up in this case. Everyone I know who is politically “connected” or pays much attention was predicting Hubbard would Moonwalk out of the courtroom with not a single conviction. Many thought jurors and witnesses would be bribed, or the government’s prosecutor would be just plain outfoxed.
So does this mean we should all have hope again? Can we check our cynicism at the door as the Luv Guv and Roy Moore stare into the abyss? Are crooked politicians shaking in their boots? Can I work more clichés into this paragraph? Only time will tell.
There are some definite takeaways from Hubbard’s conviction, and certainly it is a positive development for those who believe public service shouldn’t be all about stuffing as much in your pockets as possible. But it also reinforced some sad perceptions of what happens in Montgomery.
• The first thing that struck me is just how important it is that the officials in our state tasked with enforcing the law do exactly that. What do I mean? I mean that over the past many years the state’s Attorney General and district attorneys around the state have been pretty lax when it comes to cracking down on political corruption. They seem to leave that to the feds, and that strategy is one of the reasons so many attempts to take a political scalp in Alabama fall short.
Defense attorneys all over the state know waving their hands in the air and railing against “the long arm of the federal government” resonates with Alabama juries like Bear Bryant and NASCAR. In Hubbard’s case, even though AG Big Luther Strange recused himself, his prosecutor did an outstanding job. I don’t think it hurt that Hart is “one of us.”
The AG’s office under Strange has been incredibly weak when it comes to going after big political game. Hopefully this will encourage them. Who knows, maybe they’ll even go after some of the big-shot businessmen and lobbyists who appear to have conspired with Hubbard to get what they want. I’m not holding my breath, but maybe, just maybe.
• Bob Riley and his family are far slimier than we might have suspected when he was governor.
Although jurors let the “friend loophole” in the state ethics law apply to the former governor, it’s almost impossible to read his testimony and not come away thinking he worked Hubbard for every advantage possible. Riley’s emails and testimony show he was more than willing to help make sure the speaker’s cup runneth over while working as a big-time lobbyist with business before the Legislature.
It’s hard to see a giant difference between Richard Scrushy and Bob Riley, except Riley pulled strings to make sure Hubbard was personally enriched. And Scrushy went to jail. The trial was quite an eye-opener about the popular ex-gov. I hope someone in the AG’s office is thinking long and hard about Riley and the other big shots who helped their good “friend” get a prison number.
• People in government say this proves how tough Alabama’s ethics laws are, but I’d still say there’s room for improvement. The “friendship loophole” needs to be tightened up to make sure the next time there’s a trial like this every witness isn’t wearing a friendship bracelet. The spirit of that clause is so people who are really friends can still do things together — not so your newfound political cronies can help dump hundreds of thousands into your pocket once you become useful.
• A positive for the Mobile area is Hubbard’s departure means Speaker Pro Tempore Victor Gaston ascends to the speaker’s chair, for the time being at least. Gaston seems like the antithesis of Hubbard — a calm, likable guy with a good sense of humor who’s never had a whiff of scandal around him. If he’s not the first speaker from the Azalea City, he’s one of only a few, which might be good for this area considering most of the Legislature treats anything south of the Dolly Parton Bridge like a separate country.
We’ll have to wait to see if Gaston will keep the throne once House Republicans get together again. He’ll definitely face opposition for the speaker’s gavel. In light of what we’ve had, though, Gaston seems like a great choice to bring some integrity and thoughtfulness to the job.
• Perhaps the greatest thing about Hubbard’s conviction is this: it will give Gov. Robert Bentley a perfect person to consult about his massive prison reform efforts. And who knows, maybe they’ll even end up being roomies in a few months.