Alabama Supreme Court justices questioned a state attorney about potential vagueness in the state ethics law during arguments Tuesday as former House Speaker Mike Hubbard seeks to overturn a 2016 corruption conviction that ended his once-influential political career and could send him to prison for four years.
The oral arguments before the court largely centered on the wording of the state ethics statute and whether consulting contracts and business investments Hubbard received could be construed as violations. Justices asked attorneys for the state if they thought sections of the law were clear.
The state’s solicitor general and a defense lawyer squared off over whether the transactions were aboveboard business dealings or the unscrupulous monetizing of a public office.
Sam Heldman, an attorney for Hubbard, told justices that the contracts and investments were all work transactions that fell within exemptions for compensation and “fair-value” trades in the state ethics law.
“Mike Hubbard has not committed any crime,” Heldman said.
Solicitor General Edmund LaCour told justices that Hubbard leveraged his office to make money.
“He used it to rake in over one million dollars in less than two years,” LaCour told the court.
Several of the 11 counts against Hubbard involved $150,000 in investments from company executives he sought and received in his struggling printing company in Auburn. Alabama law prohibits politicians from accepting a “thing of value” from a lobbyist or a “principal” who employs a lobbyist.
Heldman said investors received stock in exchange for the money and argued it was permissible under the “fair-value” trades exception in the state ethics law.
LaCour said Hubbard was seeking money from business executives who wanted to see him remain in the speaker’s chair. The state and defense also disagreed whether some of those executives fall under the definition of “principal.”
Justices questioned LaCour about the $150,000 and other charges that Hubbard wrongly accepted something from a principal. Justice Will Sellers asked if it was clear who was covered as a principal. Justice Michael Bolin said the line for what’s illegal should be clear.
“There’s got be something the average person can understand,” Bolin said.
Chief Justice Tom Parker asked about the value of the stock the investors received. Heldman replied that all investors said they were happy with the deal, while LaCour said that given the company’s shaky finances, the price had to have been inflated.
Other justices noted in their questions that Hubbard had long-standing political and personal friendships with some of the investors and that he owned only 25 percent of the printing company.
Hubbard was automatically removed from office with the felony conviction. A judge sentenced him to four years in prison, but he is free on bond as he appeals. He attended court Tuesday accompanied by his wife, Susan Hubbard. Defense lawyers are asking justices to issue a judgment of acquittal or at least grant Hubbard a new trial.
Other counts against Hubbard dealt with consulting contracts he received from companies. The state argued that Hubbard was being hired only because of his political position as speaker and the pay he received violated the prohibition of giving a “thing of value.”
Heldman said the speaker was being paid for work he completed and he disputed the prosecutors’ arguments that “Mike Hubbard was doing very little” for the money.
The defense has also argued that actions Hubbard took, such as arranging a meeting with the governor and having his chief of staff call about a company’s patent, were done as constituent services because the company owner had businesses in his legislative district. The attorney general’s office contends he took the actions to benefit a client.
The Republican politician’s appeal went before an all-Republican court in the GOP-dominated state. Two of the nine justices recused themselves from the case. The court did not announce why on Tuesday.
Hubbard, a legislator from Auburn and former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, was the architect of the GOP’s takeover of the Alabama Legislature in 2010. He was elected House speaker soon after.
Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.