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A tale of two attorneys

Matt Hart looks on during Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard's trial on Thursday in Opelika, Ala.
Matt Hart looks on during Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard's trial on Thursday in Opelika, Ala. Opelika-Auburn News via Associated Press

Midway through his opening arguments in the biggest political corruption trial in Alabama history, defense attorney Bill Baxley pauses to consult his notes. “Excuse me,” he says to the jury, waving a flimsy, scribbled-on square of paper, “I wrote my notes on a napkin.”

When the trial began, and the judge asked the prosecution and defense if they were ready, Baxley said, “We cannot fully be ready.” And all through his opening speech he professes befuddlement about the claims against his client, Mike Hubbard, Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives.

“I can’t understand exactly what he’s being charge with,” he says of the 23 felony ethics charges against Hubbard. “To me they’re unintelligible.” Of the lead prosecutor’s opening statement he complains, “I don’t know what he was talking about,” and says that it’s all “mumbo jumbo and gobbledygook.”

To someone just walking into the courtroom, it might seem that Hubbard’s future and freedom lay in the hands of an overworked and inexperienced court-appointed public defender. But those who know him say otherwise.

“Don’t be fooled if you think he’s bumbling around,” says Tom Sorrells, a former district attorney from Dothan. “He’s not only one of the best attorneys in the state, he’s a living legend.”

Baxley was born and raised in Dothan, the son of a prosecutor and judge. He earned his law degree from the University of Alabama in his early 20s, and before he was 30 he was elected state attorney general, becoming the youngest person in United States history to win a state attorney generalship.

“He’s tried some of the biggest cases in the state’s history,” Sorrells says. “There was nobody he was afraid of taking on.”

He’s perhaps best known for winning in 1977 a guilty verdict against Robert Chambliss for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls. As he pursued the case, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan wrote him a threatening letter filled with racist bile. On the state’s letterhead, Baxley replied: “Kiss my ass.”

A picture of a hero

Now nearly 75, Baxley walks with a bit of a stoop, in short, shuffling steps as he uncaps a black marker to write down the charges against Hubbard on a big flip pad of paper set up on an easel.

Earlier, his opponent, Deputy Attorney General Matt Hart, had done the same with a slick and orderly PowerPoint presentation, grouping the 23 allegations against Hubbard into four main categories: using his power as chair of the Alabama Republican Party to steer party money toward his own business, acting as a paid lobbyist while serving as Speaker of the House, soliciting and receiving things of value from lobbyists and people who employ lobbyists, and using state resources to conduct personal business.

But here, in contrast to Hart, Baxley tallies them willy-nilly, seemingly struggling to remember them all.

“What am I missing?” he asks, scratching his chin and biting his lower lip.

“Bill Canary,” one of his fellow attorneys says, referring to the executive director of the Business Council of Alabama, a registered lobbyist that Hubbard is accused of asking for financial help.

“Oh yes, Billy Canary,” Baxley says. “The best I can tell from this gobbledygook in that count, they’re charging Mike for being friends with him,” underscoring a point he’d made earlier in his opening speech, that Hart hadn’t given the jury the whole story.

“What he didn’t show was the parts of the ethics law that offers exceptions for friendships in business dealings,” Baxley said.

Baxley’s speech paints a picture of Hubbard as a local hero, a businessman who’d started his career in sports marketing, first as a public relations student at the University of Georgia who helped Herschel Walker on his campaign to win the Heisman trophy in 1982, then in his first job, in the Auburn University’s athletic department, where he helped Bo Jackson win the Heisman in 1985.

He married a beautiful woman named Susan and they had two boys, Baxley said, fleshing out the Mike Hubbard story. Hubbard left Auburn to start his own media company that won the rights to broadcast the university’s games, which he sold for several million dollars to a larger company that kept him on for a healthy salary. But he was also part of a team of investors that bought a printing company that was $8.8 million in debt, and this became a continual financial drain. And after Hubbard became Speaker of the House, his media company sold again to an even larger company that turned around and terminated Hubbard’s job.

“So he asked people who were friends of his if they could help him find work,” Baxley says as he scribbles down the charges on his big pad of paper. “We haven’t been able to find anything wrong with that. It wasn’t anything he was doing undercover. There wasn’t anything done in secret.”

‘Prolific and tenacious’

Matt Hart, lead attorney for the prosecution, is an Alabama legend in his own right. As a top prosecutor in the white-collar crime division of the U.S. District Attorney’s office for northern Alabama in the early 2000s, he spearheaded successful corruption cases against former governor Don Siegelman, former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford, several state representatives and senators, and a handful of Democratic Party officials.

Hart is a burly man. His thick gray-and-black beard obscures his neck and gives him the appearance of a giant, ferocious badger, and his reputation as a lawyer furthers the comparison. He’s one of the “the most prolific and tenacious — and in some defense circles reviled — prosecutors Alabama has ever seen,” Al.com columnist John Archibald wrote recently. “Telling this guy to go after corruption is like letting a mongoose loose in a chicken house.”

In his opening remarks, though, Hart came off as friendly as he calmly walked the jury through a quick civics lesson before laying out the charges against Hubbard. The state government, he said, provides services to Alabamians—roads and infrastructure, police protection, public health services, parks, courts, and so on.

“All this costs a lot of money, and the state generally gets that money from the people, and, believe it or not, we disagree on how to spend that money,” he said, smiling. “In our society, we have a way to make those difficult choices. We elect representatives. And we have laws they have to follow.”

Hubbard, he explained, helped make those laws tougher after he became speaker of the House in 2010. As chair of the state’s Republican Party, he had led a campaign called a “Handshake with Alabama” that promised to address the ethics problems in Montgomery that had resulted in the many convictions of Democrats that Hart himself had brought to bear.

A representative can’t work as a paid lobbyist, Hart told the jury. Elected officials can’t ask for or receive things of value from lobbyists and the people who employ them. They can’t vote for legislation that would benefit themselves or businesses they’re affiliated with. And they can’t use state resources to conduct personal business.

“That makes really good sense,” Hart told the jurors. “And even if it doesn’t, it’s the law.”

And the law doesn’t just apply to elected officials, he said; chairs and vice chairs of the state’s political parties are beholden to the laws as well. It’s this part of the law Hart’s team addresses when the first witness takes the stand.

Hart questions witness

“Could you please state your name for the jury?” Deputy Attorney General John Gibbs asks the man on the witness stand on Tuesday.

“John Ross.”

Ross is a lobbyist in Montgomery, and before that he was executive director of the Alabama Republican Party, working directly under Hubbard when he was chair. Gibbs asks if the party used Craftmaster Printers, Inc., the struggling company that Hubbard co-owned.

“Yes, sir,” Ross replies.

Hart asks the same thing about other companies that, in turn, used Craftmaster. Ross answers yes again.

“Why?” Gibbs asks.

“The chairman told us he wanted to use them,” Ross says, referring to Hubbard.

Then Gibbs shows Ross stacks of copies of checks from the party to these companies. Ross confirms that they are real.

Throughout Ross’s testimony, the jurors take copious notes, and it all seems cut and dry.

Baxley’s turn

Baxley shuffles to the podium.

“Did anyone ever tell you you must use Craftmaster, in those words?” he asks.

“I don’t recall ‘must.’ We just did,” Ross replies.

Baxley asks if using the printer was a good thing for the campaigns they were working on.

“Yes, sir,” Ross says.

“And in 2010 you were proud of what you accomplished?”

“Yes, sir. Still am.”

“Did you know Mike Hubbard contributed $40,000 of his own money to the campaign?”

‘A show for the jury’

For the most part, Baxley’s questions don’t seek to refute the essence of the state’s case, that Hubbard directed party money to his own business. But that doesn’t necessarily matter, says Jenny Carroll, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and an expert in criminal defense.

“He’s making a show for the jury, that this is the big, bad government coming down on his client, who is just trying to do his job,” she says. “His claim is that Mike Hubbard didn’t actually get a benefit from it. And that he’s a good man.”

“In a jury trial, you are connecting with people,” says Hamp Baxley, an attorney in Dothan who is Baxley’s nephew. “A lot of times, the best story wins, and Bill Baxley knows how to connect with people.”

Lobbyist on the stand

After Ross testifies, Tim Howe, a lobbyist, takes the stand. Under questioning from the prosecution, he says that in 2010 the Hubbard-controlled Republican Party hired him and his company, SRM Media, to buy radio and TV ads for Republican candidates in Alabama. It’s a service for which he usually charges clients a 15 percent fee, but in this case he only took 5 percent.

“Because you didn’t actually do the media buying?” Gibbs asks.

“Yes,” Howe says.

“Your role was to pass the money along to Network Creative,” a company Hubbard owns, which did the media buying. “You were a conduit for the money?”

“Yes.”

Howe faces questions not only about the charges that Hubbard directed party money to his own business, but also allegations that Hubbard voted for legislation that would benefit a company that was paying him, as did Ross before him.

As Ross explained in his testimony, toward the end of the 2013 legislation session, the state was facing a severe budget crunch, and the Governor’s Office was working with the state Medicaid office to explore the possibility of having a private company manage the prescription drug program for Medicaid patients. The hope was that it might save the state tens of millions of dollars, but there were concerns about how it might affect Medicaid recipients’ access to drugs and possibly threaten independent pharmacy owners.

At that point, Ross was a lobbyist in Howe’s firm of Swatek, Azbell, Howe & Ross, and they had a subcontract with a lobbyist named Ferrell Patrick to help on one of his accounts, American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc. (APCI), a consortium of the state’s independent pharmacists. And APCI was opposed to the privatization idea, but working with their lobbyists they came up with a plan to turn privatization to their benefit: they would push legislation to give the contract, worth $20 million a year, to them.

It’s this issue that will lead to the most dramatic moment in the first week of trial, one that will seem to all in attendance in the Lee County courtroom as devastating to Hubbard’s case, and it will send Baxley reeling.

‘Seemed like a win-win’

On the witness stand Wednesday sits Josh Blades, currently a Montgomery lobbyist and formerly Hubbard’s chief of staff. With his round glasses, and hair neatly combed to one side, he looks a lot like John Dean did in 1973 when he took the stand at the Senate hearings on Watergate.

“Mike’s a friend,” he says of the defendant. “Mike hired me, and we had a great working relationship.”

He testifies that late in the 2013 legislative session, Patrick called him to request a meeting with the speaker about the idea to privatize Medicaid’s prescription drug program. Blades arranged for Patrick and Ross to meet with the Speaker and representatives Steve Clouse (R-Dothan) and Greg Wren (R-Montgomery), both of whom Hubbard had appointed to leadership positions on the House committee that controls the state’s general fund.

There, Patrick proposed adding to the budget language that would make it so APCI would be the only entity in the state that would qualify for the contract to run the program, saying it would save the state money and make small business owners happy.

“It seemed like a win-win,” Blades testifies from the stand. “Everyone in the room was in favor of it. My job was to carry it out.”

What Blades didn’t know is that Hubbard, who was one of the “everyone in the room,” had a $5,000 a month contract with APCI.

With the help of other staff in the Speaker’s Office, Blades got the language — a mere 23 words — into the budget bill. On the day it came up for vote, Ross spotted him in the hallway and asked if they could talk.

“I said, ‘Sure,’” Blades says from the witness stand. “We went into my office and he shut the door and said Ferrell Patrick told him Mike had a contract with APCI.”

“I was upset that I didn’t know about the contract,” Blades says under oath. “I was upset because I played a role in what transpired that day, and what happened earlier that day.

“I was afraid there could be legal implications for what happened. I was afraid Mike could be in legal trouble.”

The two rushed down to the House floor where Hubbard was at his desk, and Blades asked, “Mr. Speaker, do you have a contract with APCI?”

“He said, ‘Yes,’” Ross testifies, “but he followed up and said it was strictly for out-of-state work.”

Hubbard’s answer didn’t assuage Blades’s concerns, and he advised his boss that they needed to get the language out of the bill. Hubbard agreed, and Blades and others tried to remove it, but it was too late in the session and it came up for vote.

“I went back to the Speaker,” Blades testifies, “and he asked me, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and I said, ‘Don’t do it.’

“He said, ‘It would raise to many red flags if I don’t vote for my own budget.’”

“So he pressed the green button?” Deputy Attorney General Michael Duffy asks.

“Yes, sir.”

‘100,000 reasons’

Blades further testifies that he asked the speaker if he had anymore contracts. The speaker told him he did, one for $12,500 a month with the Southeast Alabama Gas District and another for $7,500 with an education concern called Edgenuity.

He didn’t tell his chief of staff he had a fourth, for $10,000 a month with a man named Bob Abrams and his company, CV Holdings.

Duffy asks Blades if he knew Abrams owned the company in Auburn, and that he is a major source of campaign donations for Republicans. Blades says he did.

“Did Mr. Hubbard approach you about help with a patent Mr. Abrams was trying to obtain?”

“Yes,” Blades replies, explaining that he did quite a bit of work over the next several months on Abram’s behalf, but the progress was slow.

“The speaker was very interested, and he checked up on it often,” Blades says. “The speaker said, ‘It’s very important to him we get this done.’”

“What else did Mr. Hubbard say?” Duffy asks.

Blades takes a long, pained pause.

“Mr. Hubbard told me he had 100,000 reasons to get this done.”

Clearly rattled

The entire courtroom seems electrified by Blades’s testimony, and the next day the “100,000 reasons” quote will make headlines.

During cross-examination, Baxley takes a copy of the budget and flips through its hundred or so pages. The APCI language in question is just a few lines, he says, and it’s embedded in thousands of lines of text funding billions of dollars worth of programs around the state.

“Can we pass it around to the jury?” he asks Judge Jacob Walker, and the courtroom is silent for several minutes while the 12 jurors and four alternates look through the document.

But after Judge Walker calls for a break and the jury leaves the room, Baxley and his team are clearly rattled. Baxley asks that the judge unseal Blades’s grand jury testimony, a move to impeach his testimony, but the judge calmly denies the request.

A few more questions

After the break, Baxley has just a few more questions for Blades.

“For Christmas, Mr. Hubbard gave you a beer-making kit and made labels for you, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir,” Blades replies, smiling.

“It said ‘Blades Brew,’ and it had a bulldog on it?”

“Yes.”

“Would you say he was a good boss?”

“He was a great boss.”

“Best boss you ever had?”

“Yes, sir.”

Joe Miller: miller_joseph1@columbusstate.edu, @JoeMillerWriter

This week

The Mike Hubbard trial continues Tuesday through Friday in Montgomery. Scheduled to testify Tuesday are Jimmy Rane, the founder of Great Southern Wood; Will Brooke, chair of Business Council of Alabama; Billy Canary, executive director of Business Council of Alabama; Farrell Patrick and Dax Swatek, both lobbyists; and Minda Riley Campbell, a lobbyist and the daughter of former Alabama governor Bob Riley.

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