Easily the most high-profile witness to date testified Wednesday morning in the trial of indicted Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley took the stand at 9 a.m. to gasps and finger pointing by surprised jurors. In under 20 minutes, Bentley testified that he remembers meeting with Hubbard to discuss what he described as economic development projects.
Prosecutors are seeking to prove Hubbard was being paid up to $12,000 a month to illegally lobby the governor on behalf of his business clients..
A state prosecutor showed Bentley reports Hubbard sent his clients describing how he met with the governor on projects that could benefit them. The governor testified he recalled the meetings.
During the cross-examination, lead defense attorney Bill Baxley asked if it was Bentley’s opinion that Hubbard’s actions were in the best interest of Alabamians. Bentley explained that it was. And that he believed the projects were good for the Yellowhammer State because they would bring jobs.
“Yes, sir. It was because it was jobs,” Bentley said before the captivated courtroom.
Like Hubbard, Bentley has found himself at the center of his own scandal in recent months, having admitted making sexually charged remarks to a former female aide.
Next up on the witness stand was lobbyist and long-time Hubbard acquaintance Dax Swatek. Swatek testified Hubbard asked him to invest in Craftmaster Printers, but declined as he thought it would be illegal.
“I told him that it was at a minimum bad perception and my understanding of the ethics law was that he could not ask and I could not give,” Swatek testified.
“To me, a there is a perception issue there. Two is that the investment idea was something that wasn’t appealing to me, but also three, the ethics law states, based on my training and understanding, that a legislator can’t ask a lobbyist for anything and a lobbyist can’t give anything back,” Swatek said, as he explained Hubbard was seeking investments from several contacts to keep his business afloat.
Hubbard’s defense team argued the charges Hubbard faces for soliciting investments from lobbyists and principals, such as Swatek, are exempt due to an exception for friendship in the state’s ethics law.
Will Brooke, an executive at a finance firm and former chairman of the Business Council of Alabama, took the stand next and testified Hubbard asked for his help to devise a plan to save his company.
He agreed to help Hubbard and later presented him the idea to get a group of people to make $150,000 investments in exchange for preferred stock in Craftmaster to help make the company solvent, and that he himself invested $150,000.
“This was a way he could support himself and be free and independent,” Brooke testified to the merits of his plan.
Prosecutors argued Hubbard broke state ethics law by soliciting advice from Brooke, a board member at the Business Council of Alabama.
Former state senator and Mountain Brook-Republican Steve French was next on the stand to testify that he introduced Hubbard to Sterne Agee CEO Jim Holbrook, whom Hubbard is accused of soliciting and receiving a $150,000 Craftmaster investment.
French served in the state Legislature alongside Hubbard until 2010, and worked under Holbrook at Sterne Agee from 2010 to 2014.
“He and Mr. Holbrook had never met and they had never talked. So he was, I guess, asking for a warm introduction,” French testified of Hubbard approaching him with the investment plan.
French testified under an immunity agreement he signed with prosecutors in the Hubbard investigation.
Hubbard was indicted in October 2013 on 23 felony ethics charges of using his political office for personal gain.
If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of two to 20 years imprisonment and fines of up to $30,000 for each count. He would be removed from office if convicted of any of the 23 charges.
Hubbard has since maintained his innocence and continued to serve as Speaker of the Alabama House during the 2016 legislative session.
Testimony will resume on Thursday.