Something Is Rotten in the State of Alabama

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is going on trial this week for corruption charges. He's just one of the state's many top government officials facing legal or ethics scandals.
by | May 24, 2016
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, left, and wife Susan Hubbard before walking into the courthouse. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

The long-awaited corruption trial of Alabama state House Speaker Mike Hubbard begins on Tuesday. Ironically, most of the two-dozen charges filed against him involve violations of ethics laws that Hubbard himself sponsored.

Hubbard denies all charges. But his trial comes at a time when there are ethics or legal questions surrounding top leaders of all three branches of Alabama's state government.

Gov. Robert Bentley faces both federal and state investigations into whether he misused his office to reward friends and cover up a purported affair with a top aide.

Roy Moore was suspended earlier this month from his post as chief justice of the state Supreme Court for violating judicial ethics. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that made same-sex marriage a universal right, Moore instructed probate judges that the Alabama court's decision barring such marriages was still in effect.

With so many high-profile leaders facing serious allegations, Alabama's political class is wondering what this might mean for the future of the state, said Bill Britt, who runs the Alabama Political Reporter, an online news site.

"We look like a cesspool of corruption," Britt said. "Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, it's easy to see the damage to our state on a national or even international basis."

Some people in Alabama are worried that one-party control has made the state more susceptible to scandal. Democrats ruled Alabama for more than a century before Republicans took control following the 2010 elections.

"If this were a more robust two-party state, the drumbeat against Hubbard or Bentley would have been louder," said Zac McCrary, a Democratic consultant based in Montgomery.

Hubbard faces 23 counts of ethics violations, all alleging that he profited from relationships with people doing business with the state. He's accused of voting when he had a conflict of interest, taking illegal payments from lobbyists and lobbying executive branch agencies on behalf of business clients.

The House re-elected Hubbard as speaker last year, even though he was already under indictment. Hubbard's attorneys say that he had relied on guidance from the state Ethics Commission.

One of the accusations swirling around Bentley is that he fired the state's top law enforcement official for providing evidence in the Hubbard case. Last month, the House voted to authorize an investigation into Bentley's activities. But the resolution also raised the bar on the number of votes needed to move an impeachment effort forward. No hearing is expected until next month.

"The salaciousness of the Bentley saga distracts from more damning accusations of hiring and firing and misuse of public funds," said McCrary.

Barring any further revelations, however, most observers believe that Bentley will manage to hold on until his term ends, more than two years from now.

"There's a sense that he's going to limp to the finish line," said Bob Davis, editorial page editor of The Anniston Star. "A finish line that's a long ways off."

Meanwhile, Moore faces a trial in the Court of the Judiciary. He could be removed from office, much like he was back in 2003 when he refused a federal court's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. He was re-elected as chief justice in 2012.

On Saturday, conservative groups and other supporters held a rally at the state judicial building, calling for Moore's reinstatement.

"Chief Justice Moore has a tremendous amount of support in rural Alabama," said Britt. "People are outraged that he may be impeached."

With the outcome uncertain in each case, it's not yet clear how they'll affect the different branches. Davis argues that multiple investigations involving top political actors exacerbates public cynicism about government.

"We're sort of like the dog that's been beaten and chained so much that we all go, 'Gosh, here we go again,'" he said. "We've become perhaps numb to it all."

As with all things political, thoughts have already turned to how things will play out in the next election. Hubbard's lawyers have alleged that even though state Attorney General Luther Strange removed himself from the case, he was interested in seeing Hubbard hamstrung as a potential rival to replace Bentley.

"This has hastened the attention being paid to the 2018 elections," said McCrary, "gaming out the impact that these scandals could have on once and perhaps future gubernatorial aspirants like Mike Hubbard and Roy Moore."