The public corruption trial of Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard began Monday in Opelika, and the timing has made it the third piece in a trifecta of political scandal currently thrusting the Yellowhammer State into the national news for all the wrong reasons.
Jurors are being selected in Lee County for Hubbard’s trial as Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore face possible legal troubles of their own.
Bentley continues to deal with lingering allegations of an affair with his former political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, while Moore is being charged with violating judicial ethics for the second time in a complaint stemming from his last stand against same-sex marriage in 2015.
“Had you told me when I ran for a seat in the legislature that two years later I’d be looking at all three branches of the state’s leadership on the verge of being removed from office, I’m certain I wouldn’t have believed you,” State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) told Lagniappe. “Just think of the sheer magnitude of that.”
The magnitude is significant, as the Senate remains the only arm of state government that has avoided being dragged into the web of scandals. When asked about that, Pringle said, “Indictment rumors are always rampant in Montgomery,” though it’s unclear whether that was political humor or cautious speculation in what is proving to be a trying year for Alabama politicos.Political revolution, personal suffering
Hubbard’s indictment has been referred to as “the worst-kept secret in Alabama politics,” which set the tone for a year and a half of court proceedings marked by allegations of leaks and prosecutorial misconduct. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who has emerged as a key player in the Alabama GOP, recused himself from any involvement with the investigation leading to Hubbard’s 23-count indictment.
At the time, Strange said he did so to avoid the appearance of a political agenda, but Hubbard supporters disagree.
“I can’t figure out when he’s the Attorney General and when he’s not,” Hubbard’s Attorney Mark White said of Strange in 2014.
Since then, the speaker’s camps in Montgomery and Lee County have maintained the case is a “political witch hunt.” Though his supporters continue to point toward the AG’s office, Strange has stayed out of it, appointing special prosecutor Matt Hart in his place.
Hubbard has continued to deny any wrongdoing and blamed his predicament on politics and an overzealous and flawed interpretation of state ethics laws. Pringle said Hubbard continues to see support in the House, demonstrated by his overwhelming re-election last year.
“The people in Lee County overwhelmingly re-elected Hubbard even with all the indictments against him,” Pringle said. “I support Mike. I think he’s done a great job and did a great job in this recent session. Of course [the trial] was on everybody’s mind; it was the big elephant in the room.”
In the 23 charges brought by a Lee County grand jury, Hubbard is accused of using his previous position as chairman of the Alabama GOP and his seat in the House to personally enrich himself in a number of ways. While Hubbard was head of the state GOP, prosecutors allege he used his company, Craftmaster Printing, to “embezzle over $1,012,444.”
He allegedly did so by striking a deal with Florida-based Majority Strategies to produce campaign flyers for a number of candidates that helped the GOP reclaim the state Legislature in 2010. Majority Strategies, however, subcontracted much of that work out to a local printer, Craftmaster Printers — partly owned at the time by Hubbard.
Hubbard is also accused of soliciting investments and jobs from lobbyists and specifically from former Gov. Bob Riley while serving as Speaker of the House from 2010 through 2012.
While the indictment was only nine pages, prosecutors released more than 100 pages of Hubbard’s emails in February 2015 after his lawyers asked for the charges against him to be more clearly defined.
Together, the emails detail challenges Hubbard was facing with his personal finances after he was elected speaker in 2010 and subsequently laid off by his employer, Auburn’s IMG Sports network.
In the emails, Hubbard complains to Riley about his attempts to find work as a business consultant. However, his public position had him running afoul of the stringent 2010 ethics laws he and Riley both championed to address a “culture of corruption” among state Democrats.
“I need to be a salesman for Bob Riley and Associates. Except for those ethics laws. Who proposed those things?! What were we thinking?” Hubbard joked in a 2011 email to Riley.
In the correspondence, Hubbard told Riley he loved and admired him “as a son admires his father.” In turn, Riley seemed to offer Hubbard personal and political guidance.
“I understand — believe me — I went 14 years on a [government] payroll and it was a challenge. Now and from now on you and I are going to be suspect in everything we do. However the ability to make great change is given to few people and you are one of the rare ones that can make it happen. Again [the] question now is DO YOU “WANT” to be [governor] or make a lot of money: good thing is you could do either but I am not sure it’s possible to do both,” Riley wrote to Hubbard.
In other emails, Hubbard suggested Riley deregister as a lobbyist so he could be legally hired by Riley’s business for consulting work. Hubbard seemed to be the only one on board with that plan, but the former governor did help Hubbard find an economic development consulting gig with Southeast Alabama Gas District (SEAGD).
However, when his $12,000 monthly fee was later cut in half, Hubbard once again turned to Riley for help soliciting business to visit the cities that make up the SEAGD.
Over the course of two years, Hubbard appears to have wrestled with a choice between his political goals and supporting his family financially. At one point, he mentions the possibility of stepping down — something Riley advised against.
In the next few weeks, all eyes will be on Lee County, as the Hubbard trial could overshadow the scandals facing Bentley and Moore. After all, this same issue caused the strain in former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier’s relationship with Bentley that exposed the governor’s “inappropriate conduct” with Mason.
With witnesses including Bentley, Riley and more than 20 legislators, the trial has a lot of officials on alert. Pringle said most of Montgomery is ready to put it behind them, no matter the outcome.
“This state has so many problems facing us that need to be addressed, and we have to get to a position where we can move forward,” he added. “We’ve done a lot, but you don’t change a ship’s direction overnight.”
Though he praised the legislative leadership in the regular session, Pringle said Hubbard, too, seems ready to move past a trial.
“Mike looked me in eye one day and said, ‘For two and half years, I’ve been tried and convicted in the public and the media, and I’ve not been allowed to defend myself,’” Pringle recalled.
With jury selection already underway, it seems Hubbard will get his chance soon enough.
By Jason Johnson
‘Business as usual’ in governor’s office despite scandal
Despite the specters of impeachment and scandal looming over his administration, Gov. Robert Bentley appears to be pressing on with his agenda as if he faces no political problems.
Bentley’s troubles, while long rumored, were displayed for the first time to a majority of the public when ousted Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier exposed details of the governor’s alleged affair with longtime political advisor Rebekah Caldwell Mason in a press conference in Montgomery March 23.
Collier aired allegations of his wrongful termination from his position with ALEA, and shared details of the governor’s long-rumored affair with Mason. Soon after Collier’s press conference, recordings of phone conversations between Bentley and someone he refers to as “Rebekah” were released to statewide media, capturing Bentley discussing physical encounters.
During the 2016 regular session of the Legislature, Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) introduced articles of impeachment against the governor, but ultimately the Legislature failed to act before the session ended. Since March, Bentley has largely dodged questions about his potential impeachment, going so far as to call it a “political attack” and “political grandstanding,” saying there are no grounds for his impeachment.
“There is a lot of work to do before I end my term in office in 2019,” Bentley said. “I have laid out a strategic plan for success, and I will continue to focus my efforts on making Alabama a great state. That is what the people of Alabama overwhelmingly elected and re-elected me to do. I will continue to work hard for them every day.”
State Auditor Jim Zeigler is not satisfied with the governor’s explanation of the situation. This week, Zeigler said while the citizens of Alabama want answers and a resolution to the problem, Bentley continues on as if nothing has happened.
“It is business as usual in the governor’s office,” Zeigler said. “I believe that the people of Alabama want the cloud that is currently hanging over the governor’s head to be cleared. And they don’t want it to be cleared in 2017 or 2018. They want it done now.”
Zeigler said while the impeachment process was stalled in the legislature, it could be taken up again in a potential special session. That might be difficult, though, because Zeigler said if Bentley calls a special session, it will likely only tackle an issue such as BP money or state prison funding.
While the next regular session isn’t scheduled until February 2017, Zeigler said if 53 members of the House of Representatives sign a petition asking for an impeachment-only special session, the speaker of the House would be required to announce a special session within 10 days of the petition. This petition would need 30 more signatures than a similar one in April which received 23 signatures in the House. Zeigler said that is “not likely” to happen, but said there are other ways to remove a sitting governor from office.
Zeigler used the example of former Gov. Guy Hunt, who was forced to resign from office in 1993 after he was found guilty of theft, conspiracy and ethics violations in a case where prosecutors alleged he withdrew $200,000 from a 1987 inaugural account and used it to buy marble showers and lawnmowers. Zeigler said the state constitution does not allow convicted felons to hold public office.“Certainly, if the governor is found guilty of a felony he would be removed immediately,” Zeigler said.
Further, Zeigler said he is currently investigating a third “remedy” to remove Bentley from office, but he would not share details of that plan.
“All of the information I have received about the problems in the governor’s office has come from citizens, and it has come from government employees,” Zeigler said. “I was only a receptacle for this information, for these citizen reports about abuses in government. I had only two options: to remedy the problem or not to act. I chose to act.”
According to Zeigler, six weeks ago he sent a packet of all the information he has uncovered about the governor to the Alabama Ethics Commission, which he said placed him under a gag order not to speak about the details of the investigation.
Zeigler’s complaint made four major allegations. Among them, he alleged Mason received funds from a nongovernmental agency, the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, and her receipt of those funds is a violation of state ethics laws.
The complaint also said Mason and Bentley used state property and resources to further their personal relationship and that Mason should have registered as a lobbyist because she influenced state government while being paid by a private entity. It also alleged Mason and Bentley used their positions to interfere with a state Attorney General investigation.
“The important thing is that we get to the bottom of what’s going on,” Zeigler said. “That’s what the citizens want.”
Saying his office has the power to “require information on oath” from “any person touching any claim or account he is required to audit,” Zeigler ordered Bentley to appear before him May 2 to discuss the governor’s use of discretionary funds, use of state funds, and the governor’s travel and phone records related to his relationship with Mason, among other things. Bentley did not show up for Zeigler’s “hearing” and instead released a statement saying his office is cooperating with the Ethics Commission.
“The appropriate legal process is through the Alabama Ethics Commission, where the Auditor has already filed a complaint, and we are fully cooperating in every way,” Bentley said. “I do not intend to respond further to Mr. Zeigler.”
Bentley is currently advocating for his “Great State 2019 Plan” and the $800 million Alabama Prison Transformation Act, which would build four new privately run state prisons to replace existing facilities.
By Eric Mann
Chief justice charged again with ethics violations
For the second time in 13 years, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is on the defensive over charges he violated the canons of judicial ethics by disobeying a federal court order.
In 2003, Moore was removed from office after refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse. This year, he’s under fire for a January administrative order in which he “appears to direct” the state’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based upon state law, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, according to a complaint from the Judicial Inquiry Commission.“For reasons he has clearly enunciated on numerous occasions and, as is his personal right, Chief Justice Moore strongly disagrees with those courts, especially federal courts that have found that same-sex couples have an enforceable fundamental right under the United States Constitution to marry and that right cannot be infringed upon by the states,” the complaint reads. “Chief Justice Moore, however, took an oath of office to support the United States Constitution and as a state judicial officer, is bound by the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation and application of that constitution.”
Matt Staver, Moore’s attorney and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said they are in the midst of a 30-day deadline to respond to the complaint filed earlier this month. The January order simply upheld an earlier ruling by the state Supreme Court, in which Moore recused himself.
Staver said they expect to win the case because the JIC has no jurisdiction over legal matters and, in this case, is wrong on the law.
“The Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly slapped down the JIC for wading into legal arguments and has reminded the JIC it is not a court of law,” Staver wrote in a statement. “Yet the JIC has once again veered from its duty and now seeks to resolve a legal dispute that can only be resolved by the Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In a phone interview last Friday, Staver said JIC is supposed to look at the facts and ethics and not get involved in legal arguments.
In addition, he said the SCOTUS ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges applied to only four states and sets a precedent in others. Until Alabama’s law is challenged and goes through the legal process, the state law still holds.
“If the Supreme Court strikes down the death penalty today, it doesn’t mean everyone gets out of jail,” Staver said. “They can strike down a law, but the processing and application takes time. It still has to be litigated on the state level.”
He said JIC’s decision to file the complaint was politically motivated and pointed to leaks to the press as an example.
Staver added Moore’s removal from office 13 years ago could be a factor in JIC’s decision, despite the two situations being “completely different.” In that case, he was directly ordered to remove the Ten Commandments and didn’t.
Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen wrote in a statement that Moore has violated his oath of office several times.
“He has urged state and local officials to violate a binding court order,” Cohen wrote. “He has repeatedly commented on pending cases. He has undermined the public’s confidence in the judiciary by denigrating the federal courts and complaining about what he has called ‘tyranny.’”
In the statement, Cohen goes on to call Moore a “religious zealot” who has “disgraced” his office.
“For the good of the state, he should be kicked out of office,” Cohen concluded.
Although Moore was ultimately re-elected to his office after being kicked out in 2003, if he loses this complaint and is removed once again he would age out of any future Supreme Court elections.
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) would have eliminated the age restriction for state judicial elections and appointments to state university boards of trustees, but failed to pass this legislative session.
Removal from office could make Moore a popular candidate for governor, according to one Alabama political expert.
“The people of Alabama would be very upset,” political scientist and former University of Alabama professor Bill Stewart wrote in an email. “It would make Moore an instant major contender to be the next governor of Alabama. There is no age maximum to run for governor.”
Stewart wrote the impact this could have on Moore’s legacy depends largely on who is assessing it.
“I think both proponents and opponents would have to agree that he stood up for what he believed, whether that’s what they believe or not,” Stewart wrote. “And I do believe that Judge Moore is sincere in his beliefs. Moore has always believed what he says now.”
By Dale Liesch