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‘Friendship’ defense fails to save Hubbard from guilty verdict

AP

Late Friday night, a Lee County jury found Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard guilty on 12 of 23 felony corruption charges, immediately removing him from office. After a brief arrest, he was released on $160,000 bail and scheduled for sentencing at 10 a.m. on July 8.

During his three-week trial, there were moments that seemed straight out of Hollywood.

One of them came during the testimony of Minda Riley Campbell, daughter of former governor Bob Riley and a registered lobbyist with her father’s firm, Bob Riley & Associates. In stark contrast to the procession of grim-faced witnesses who’d paraded before her, she strode into the courtroom on June 3 with a big toothy smile, and she smiled through almost every minute of her testimony, delivered with syrupy Southern sweetness.

“I am always proud to take the speaker somewhere,” she said, turning her gaze from Assistant Attorney General Matt Hart to the jury. “I’m proud that he is my friend. I love the guy like a brother.”

In question was whether Hubbard had solicited and received a thing of value from her—specifically assistance with work he was doing for a client with whom he had a $12,000 per month contract and helping him find more clients to work for.

Despite the grin, she seemed at a loss to answer some of Hart’s questions. Like when he showed her a string of emails between her and Hubbard in which the speaker complained that her dad had registered as a lobbyist, which made it illegal for Hubbard to work for him. In hopes of remaining in place as speaker while pulling in good lobbyist money, Hubbard pushed the idea of her dad deregistering.

“I hope he can and will unring the bell,” Hubbard wrote.

“Here Mr. Hubbard is talking about the former governor?” Hart asked Riley Campbell.

“I don’t know,” she replied, smiling. “You’d have to ask Mike.”

But for other questions, her answers were specific and lengthy. Anytime Hart mentioned a project she and her father had lobbied for on behalf of their clients, for instance, she’d unleash a torrent of details about the jobs they would bring to Alabama.

Hart grew frustrated, and repeatedly tried to cut her off. Finally he told her that after he was done with his questions, he’d give her a chance to have her say.

This became her Hollywood moment.

When Hart said to Judge Jacob Walker, “No further questions, your honor,” Riley Campbell chirped: “He said, ‘At the end I’ll let you say what you want,’” nodding toward the prosecutor.

Gamely Hart nodded and said, “Very well.”

“Can I talk for as long as I want?” she asked, then launched into a sunny soliloquy that started with, “I’ve loved that man like a brother for 30 years,” veered into her admiration of the way Hubbard’s wife Susan “balances family and work,” and escalated to, “I don’t believe for one minute that Mike Hubbard would’ve knowingly done something illegal.”

“Objection!” Hart said, and the judge sustained.

The Yella Fella

Riley Campbell’s moment in the spotlight was fitting for the three-week trial, with its 23-felony-count and plot unfolding like Southern gothic. But it also played right into one of the defense’s main strategies: to show that Hubbard’s alleged crimes were in fact legal, because the Alabama ethics law has an exemption for friends.

She took the stand on June 3, the second of two days in which the prosecution called to the stand some of Hubbard’s closest friends, starting with Jimmy Rane, owner of Great Southern Wood Preserving Inc. and also known as the Yella Fella, a cowboy character he plays in his company’s marketing campaign. Big and burly, he smiled and winked at Hubbard as he took his seat between the judge and jury.

“You didn’t wear your hat,” Hart chided him.

“No, but I got my boots on,” Rane replied.

Hart asked Rane if he or his company employs lobbyists and Rane said yes on both counts.

“My only interests are good government, Auburn University, Marion Military Institute and a healthy business environment,” he explained.

Hart asked him about the military school, and Rane said he’d been a student there many years ago.

“I was 15 years old and drinking beer and trying to marry a girl and flunking geometry, and my daddy said, ‘Boy, have I got something for you,’” he said. “If not for that, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

But in the early 2000s, the school fell into financial trouble, and the Alabama legislature moved to have it added to the state’s community college system. Part of the deal called for the state to pay off the school’s debt, a promise that wasn’t being kept. After Hubbard became speaker, Rane asked for his help on the matter, and soon money was shifted over from some other part of the budget and into the Yella Fella’s alma mater.

Hart asked Rane if, at Hubbard’s request, he had invested $150,000 in Hubbard’s struggling business, Craftmaster Printing. Yes, Rane said.

“Mike Hubbard is my friend,” he explained. “I believe in him, and yes, I have supported him.”

Rane told the jury he first met Hubbard long before he ever got into politics, “when he was a fresh-faced kid” in his first job out of college, working public relations for Auburn University’s athletic department. “I’ve known Mike Hubbard since 1984 and our relationship is very pure,” he said. “When I look at him, I’m not seeing the Speaker of the House. I’m seeing my friend.

“I would trust him with my children and my checkbook, I would.”

Rooted in politics

Between the former governor’s daughter and the Yella Fella came Billy Canary, executive director of the Business Council of Alabama and a registered lobbyist. One of Hubbard’s counts was for asking for and receiving clients and work. Asked how he’d become friends with Hubbard, Canary said their relationship had “blossomed like many great blessings in life,” adding: “I love him like a brother.”

But what Hart wanted to know was if their friendship predated Hubbard’s time in politics — the friendship exemption in the state’s ethic laws refers specifically to bonds that predate public life. Canary conceded that the two had met in the mid-1990s during former Governor Riley’s first political campaign, for Congress.

In 1998, Canary later helped Hubbard on his first run to represent Auburn in the Alabama House, and together with the Rileys they were part of the core leadership team behind the 2010 “Republican Handshake with Alabama,” a statewide initiative to seize control of both houses of the legislature from the Democrats, who had held it since Reconstruction. They grew close, had each other over for dinner with their wives, and even went to see ZZ Top together, and the Doobie Brothers, too. “I’m embarrassed to admit that,” Canary said sheepishly on the witness stand.

After Hubbard claimed the speakership, Canary enjoyed a standing weekly meeting with Hubbard whenever the legislature was in session, and together they set the legislative agenda.

But during these meetings, Hubbard would complain about his finances, asking Canary, with his many business connections, to help him find work. The speaker sent emails to Canary’s boss, Will Brooke, an investment banker, saying he needed to start bringing in more money or else he’d have to step down from office, and the BCA would be out its weekly meeting in the speaker’s office.

Bo doesn’t show

When the prosecution rested its case on Tuesday, Hubbard’s team hinted that they might call a line of friends to speak on his behalf, including Bo Jackson, whom Hubbard helped in his successful campaign for a Heisman Trophy in 1985. But when court resumed after a lunch recess, they called just one friend to the witness stand to speak in Hubbard’s defense: Hubbard himself.

Under gentle questioning by defense attorney David McKnight, Hubbard talked for an hour or so about his rise from paperboy through his career in media to the speakership, and he talked about his friends, before McKnight steered him toward the evidence against him, allowing Hubbard to talk at length about how he was just getting help from folks who cared about him.

Jimmy Rane, the Yella Fella, is “a great American,” he said. Billy Canary is “another close friend.” And the Rileys, the power family who brought him into politics to begin with?

“If Governor Riley is like a father, Minda is like a sister,” Hubbard said. “I’ve always called her the sister I never had.”

“You’ve read the charges,” McKnight said. “Are you guilty?”

Hubbard turned to the jury and said, “Absolutely not.”

‘Your friend, the lobbyist’

When the defense called Hubbard to the stand, a collective gasp rose from the audience. Few if any in attendance expected him to ever take the stand. To face cross-examination by Matt Hart, legendary for having sent a long line of corrupt Alabama politicians to jail, seemed a risky gamble.

Nearly every seat in the courtroom was filled when Hart stood to cross-examine Hubbard on Wednesday, the highest attendance since the trial had begun on May 24, with people having come from across Lee County and beyond to see the spectacle of a powerful man being grilled by the law.

Hart went straight at Hubbard’s strongest argument, that he was just getting help from longtime friends, and the ethics law’s allowance for that, by calling into question his friendship with former Governor Riley, with whom Hubbard is so close that he named his youngest son after him.

Hart did so by reading aloud emails between the two. In one, Riley asks Hubbard to get one of his clients an opportunity to speak before the entire Alabama House of Representatives. “And here you reply, ‘I really need to get some of their printing business,’” Hart told Hubbard. “So you’re asking your friend, the lobbyist, for business from one of his clients, yes or no?”

“I’m asking my friend, Bob Riley,” Hubbard replied.

“He’s a lobbyist and you’re speaker of the House,” Hart said.

“He’s Bob Riley.”

“He’s a lobbyist, right?

“He’s a friend.”

“He’s also a lobbyist, yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“And so you tell your lobbyist friend, ‘I really need to get some of their printing business,’ yes or no for the jury?”

“I said that to my friend, Bob Riley, yessir.”

On and on it went, in email after email, for an hour and a half, with Hart forcefully tagging every quote with, “your friend, the lobbyist,” or “Bob Riley, the lobbyist governor,” or “your lobbyist governor friend.” In some emails, Hubbard asks for work from Riley’s clients. In others he seeks a job at Bob Riley & Associates and urges Riley to deregister as a lobbyist so he can do so. He asks Riley to help him do work for his own clients and tells Riley about things he’s doing in the legislature on Riley’s clients’ behalf. He helps identify new clients for Riley, too.

“Here you write to your friend, the lobbyist, of one of his clients, ‘I told him I thought it was a good move, that you and I are close,’” Hart said acidly. “That’s good for that lobbyist, isn’t it? That’s good for your friend the lobbyist governor, when you tell his client that you and he are tight — tell the jury, yes or no?”

“For the next hour, I’m going to talk about the things in this case that don’t matter and the things that do matter,” Prosecutor Michael Duffy told the jury at the beginning of closing arguments, and he proceeded to lead the packed courtroom through all of the 23 counts, structuring them neatly around the points they would have to consider during deliberations.

As he spoke he flipped through a PowerPoint projected on the screen behind, slide after slide of copies of checks, lines from emails, and quotes from witness testimony. “He was selling his office,” Duffy said. “He just put a ‘for sale’ sign in front of the Speaker’s Office.”

“After listening to Mr. Duffy, I’m not sure what to say,” Lance Bell began the defense’s closing arguments, which meandered through the counts and the evidence. He paced the courtroom as he spoke, several times taking a seat in the witness stand, where he re-enacted earlier testimony in a thick, good ol’ boy accent.

“It scares me,” he said very quietly at one point, and paused for a long moment to let his fear sink in. Pointing toward the prosecution’s team, he said, “Look at all these people they have here. All this power of the state — against a citizen.”

Among them sat James Sumner, former director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, who had testified as an expert witness for the prosecution.

“Who was the only witness they had that hurt us?” Bell asked. “Mr. Sumner. He’s sitting right there with the government. He’s one of them.

“If you take away Sumner, they don’t have nothin’. The only thing they got is the guy in their pocket, and he’s sitting right there with them.”

Next morning, Baxley took over the closing arguments, and carried on this theme, going after Sumner’s credibility, calling him “proud.” He picked apart a hypothetical example Sumner had offered during his testimony of a citizen legislator who sells vacuums door to door.

“He said a vacuum salesman would have to stop selling in his district, so as not to use the mantle of his office for personal gain,” Baxley said. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you carry that to its next level, it would destroy the concept of a citizen legislature. I know this jury is too intelligent to fall for that.”

Baxley also went at Sumner’s explanation of the friendship exception in the ethics law. “I can’t believe they let Jim Sumner decide whether Mike Hubbard and Bob Riley, or Mike Hubbard and Minda Riley, are friends,” he said. “It’s almost another insult to your intelligence, to say the man who named his son after the former governor is not friends with him.”

‘All about power and greed’

“We’ve been referred to as the government,” Acting Attorney General Van Davis said to begin the trial’s final speech. “We’re not the government. We’re prosecutors for the state of Alabama. We didn’t bring these charges. A grand jury from Lee County brought these charges.”

He defended Sumner as someone who “dedicated 20 years of his life” to the Ethics Commission, and then he pivoted toward a rebuttal of the defense’s argument that Hubbard’s actions were legal because they were done among friends.

“I like Jimmy Rane,” he said. “You can’t help but like Jimmy Rane. His love and interest in Marion Military Academy — I believe that’s just as sincere as can be. But they were in trouble, and he wanted the state to help them.

“Y’all got some common sense,” he continued. “With these friends, ask yourself, did they have an interest in this, or did they do it as a friend?”

“If the jury were to decide this case on the friends exemption,” he said, holding a copy of an Alabama Ethic’s Commission guidelines booklet, “you might as well take this whole packet of ethics laws and throw it in the trash.”

He paused and pointed at Hubbard sitting at the defense’s table.

“This man right here loves power,” Davis said. “It’s all about power and greed. Mike Hubbard wasn’t serving the people of Alabama. Mike Hubbard was serving Mike Hubbard.

The jury took the case into deliberations a few minutes before 2 o’clock on Friday afternoon. At 3:30 they emerged to ask the judge to reread for them the definition of “reasonable doubt.” A little before 8, courthouse workers whisked bags of takeout food into the jury. At 8:45 a court administrator stepped into the hall and said, “We have a verdict.”

Five minutes passed as the press corps, the attorneys and the defendant, his wife and a dozen or so family friends filed back into the courtroom. Calmly, count by count, Judge Walker read the verdicts.

The first four, all regarding Hubbard’s activities as chair of the Alabama Republican Party, were “not guilty.” Hubbard’s printing had done work for the party before his time as party chair, so the jury had clearly been swayed by the defense’s argument that the ethics law provides an exemption for pre-existing work relationships.

Then, Count 5, Hubbard’s vote on the state’s 2013 general fund budget that contained language benefiting his client, American Pharmaceutical Cooperative, Inc.: Guilty.

With that, Hubbard instantly lost his seat in the House, his speakership, his power.

There were 11 more. Two were for having contracts with APCI and Edgenuity/E2020, both employers of lobbyists. One was for receiving a thing of value from a principal, Will Brooke, chairman of the BCA executive board, for receiving contracts from principals, for using his office for personal gain.

On his work for the Southeast Alabama Gas District, in which he’d met with the Governor and Secretary of Commerce to lobby for economic development incentives on behalf of his client and used the mantle of his office in the course of providing his services, the jury ruled not guilty — three counts. The defense had argued that Ethics Commission officials had, through an informal letter, pre-approved the language of his contract, which by definition called for such actions.

But on four other similar charges, on behalf of Bobby Abrams, owner of CV Holdings — for which Hubbard chose not to get the Ethics Commission’s opinion and hid from his closest staff, to whom he assigned work for the client) — he was guilty on all four counts.

For the investment scheme to save his printing business, the jury ruled not guilty for the charge of soliciting an investment from lobbyist Dax Swatek, but guilty on the four other counts, in which he received $150,000 each from four principals—including his longtime friend, Jimmy Rane, the only associate named in any of the charges who he’d become friends with before going into politics. Here the jurors likely were persuaded by the prosecution’s argument that the friendship exception allows for gifts and favors given with regularity over the course of a relationship. This substantial investment, they argued, was a business deal.

That left the counts of soliciting things of value from two lobbyists, Bob Riley and his daughter, Minda Riley Campbell, the father and sister Hubbard never had.

Not guilty.

They were just helping out the friend they brought into this world of politics and power.

In the end, it was Hubbard who brought himself down.

Joe Miller: miller_joseph1@columbusstate.edu, @JoeMillerWriter

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