Alabama politics are at a low point even by Alabama standards: In a state that trails the nation in many areas, three top elected officials are embroiled in scandal or facing removal from office while a former governor serves time in federal prison on a corruption conviction.
Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended from his job Friday and faces possible ouster over his attempts to block gay marriage following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It’s familiar territory for the Republican Moore, a Christian conservative who was previously removed from the same position in 2003 over a Ten Commandments monument and easily won re-election later.
Meanwhile, fellow Republicans tried to remove Gov. Robert Bentley by impeachment in the just-ended legislative session over a sexually charged scandal involving a top political aide, and an investigation continues. At the same time, GOP House Speaker Mike Hubbard awaits a state trial on 23 felony ethics charges that could result in his removal.
If convicted, Hubbard could even join the ranks of the imprisoned like former Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was convicted on federal influence-peddling charges.
All in all, it’s some of the worst of times for Republicans who promised to clean up state government after seizing control from Democrats who dominated for generations.
“I never recall when the top leaders of all three branches of government were simultaneously accused of improper behavior,” Bill Stewart, a retired political scientist from the University of Alabama, said Saturday.
It’s hard for state government to concentrate on issues like Medicaid or improving a dilapidated prison system when so many officials are fighting for their jobs, he said.
“It’s definitely a traumatic time,” Stewart said.
Among the nation’s poorest states, Alabama is troubled by problem areas including physical and mental health; comparatively low high school graduation rates; and too many occupational deaths, according to a report by the United Health Foundation. It consistently ranks high in college football – the University of Alabama is the reigning national champion – while struggling in so many other ways.
Yet the ranking leaders elected to sort out the mess face confounding troubles of their own.
In its list of civil charges against Moore, the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission said the 69-year-old chief justice abused his office by issuing an administrative order to probate judges in January telling them an Alabama court order and law banning same-sex marriages remained in effect despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming same-sex marriage six months earlier. Most counties issued same-sex licenses anyway.
In a statement after his suspension, Moore said the commission doesn’t have the authority to police the order he issued. As during a news conference last week, Moore criticized the Judicial Inquiry Commission by referring to a recent protest outside his office that included gay and transgender people.
“The JIC has chosen to listen to people like … a professed transvestite, and other gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals, as well as organizations which support their agenda,” Moore said. “We intend to fight this agenda vigorously and expect to prevail.”
The Court of the Judiciary will decide whether Moore violated judicial ethics, and he could be removed from office if found guilty. The same court removed Moore from office in 2003 for his refusal to follow a federal court order directing Moore to remove a washing machine-sized Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state’s judicial building.
The governor faces very different problems.
In March, Bentley admitted to making inappropriate remarks to an aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, in a scandal that has included the public airing of secret recordings that captured Bentley professing love to someone and telling her how much he enjoyed kissing her and touching her breasts, and referencing a need to start locking his office door. The admission came seven months after the former first lady, Dianne Bentley, filed for divorce after 50 years of marriage.
Bentley has struggled to shake the scandal, and lawmakers obtained enough signatures to file impeachment articles during the legislative session that ended Wednesday. The House Judiciary Committee will review the claims to see if there are grounds to remove Bentley from office.
Hubbard, the House speaker, is at risk of losing his job because of criminal charges.
Hubbard is scheduled later this month on 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his position as speaker, and previous post as chairman of the Alabama GOP, to direct business to his companies, lobby the governor’s office and to solicit investments and clients for his businesses. Bentley could be among the prosecution witnesses.
Hubbard, arguably the most powerful person in state government because of his influence and power to control the House agenda, argues the transactions were legal and separate from his public duties.
Hubbard will be automatically removed from office if convicted on even one felony count. He would join the ranks of Alabama politicians convicted of ethics violations or corruption that includes two recent governors, Republican Guy Hunt and Siegelman, the Democrat.
Hunt, a Primitive Baptist preacher, was convicted and removed from office in 1993 for using campaign and inaugural funds for personal expenses. He tried to mount a political comeback but failed before his death in 2009.
Currently imprisoned in Texas, Siegelman was convicted in 2006 on federal charges of selling a seat on a state health regulatory board in exchange for $500,000 in donations to Siegelman’s campaign to establish a state lottery in 1999. A bipartisan group has asked President Barack Obama to pardon Siegelman, claiming his prosecution was unjust and tainted by politics.