Several accused of false wrongdoing

Published 8:29pm Wednesday, May 8, 2013

“Senator Sanders, I have to tell you something. Our friend Lowell has been indicted. They did six separate indictments. We assume it was done that way to get six separate trials.” These words came from a friend of former Alabama State Senator Lowell Barron. I was caught by surprise. The import of these words took me down, way down. I knew the Alabama Attorney General’s office was really in behind Lowell. I had heard that they had seven sessions of four or five different grand juries over three years in an effort to indict Lowell. I heard that three or four of the grand juries refused to indict. I heard that after each grand jury refused, the Attorney General’s people would just get new grand jury and try again. Still, I was very surprised. I was taken down, way down.

Later that day, I reviewed a copy of the indictment.  I was relieved to find that there was only one indictment with six counts rather than six separate indictments. I was shocked to find that the six counts were all about payments to one of his staffers. I immediately understood why three or four other grand juries over several years had refused to indict Lowell.

Based upon 42 years of law practice, there is no crime. I immediately recalled what former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley said some years ago. “You can indict a ham sandwich!” I was still surprised. I was still down, way down.

Let me say up front that Lowell Barron is my friend. We worked closely together as leaders in the Alabama Senate from 1999 to 2010. I trust Lowell completely with money. He was economical with his money and other people’s money. He will not do anything illegal with his money or other people’s money. I would trust Lowell any day with my last dollar or your last dollar. He will not waste his money or anyone else’s money. I know this personally from 12 years of day-to-day experience with Lowell Barron.

I immediately called Lowell, but I could not get him. I got him later that night. He had turned himself in and was released on a $10,000 bond. His spirits were good and he was at peace. He said, “Hank, I have not done anything illegal. It will be alright.”

When I read the indictment, I saw that Rhonda Jill Johnson was also indicted. Jill, as we call her, was the staffer that Lowell was indicted for paying. I know Jill well. She was a staff person in the Senate President Pro Tem’s Office at one time. I called Jill.

Jill was down, way down. She had been out of work for some time and had no prospect for a job.  She said, “They called me before the grand jury five times in DeKalb County and once in Jackson County.  I went each time and took all my papers. I showed them where I paid taxes on the money I was paid for work I did. They were not after me. Then they indicted me. I didn’t think I needed a lawyer because I did not do anything wrong and Senator Barron did not do anything wrong. I do not have money to hire a lawyer.” I was down for Jill, way down.

I knew Jill to be a very hard worker. She went to every event for Lowell: every fire department picnic; every school event;  every community event; every senior event; every kind of event. Jill was worth every penny she was paid and more. In fact, she was worth her weight in gold for all the work she did in Senate District 8.

Lowell was our best fundraiser. He also was key in helping Democrats maintain majorities in the Senate from 1998 to 2010. When the political tsunami hit Alabama and as well as many other states in reaction to President Obama and the Great Recession, Lowell lost a close race.

I was down, way down for Lowell. I was down, way down for Jill. I was down, way way way down for all Alabama. I know how they can get us even when we have not done anything illegal. I know how they can keep calling grand juries until they find one that will indict a ham sandwich or me or you. I was way down because I know that none of us are safe as long as a powerful governmental entity really wants to get you.

I had personal experience with this same kind of challenge. Two Selma officials wrote to the  FBI, ABI, U.S. Attorney, District Attorney, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and the Ethics Commission requesting that I be investigated.

When some officials at these agencies asked what I had done, one of the Selma officials said, “I don’t know, but if you investigate long enough you will find something. There is no way any black person can be over all that money and not take some.” They were talking about the Education Trust Fund budget and the fact I chaired the Senate Finance & Taxation Education Committee. All these entities refused investigate except one. That one was so determined to get me that it completely changed the interpretation of the law.  Ironically, it was the same law I had previously checked with them about and had been assured that I was acting within the law at all times. In the end, I was cleared, but it cost me a lot of time, money and effort.

When we are attacked, we lose even when we are found not guilty. Just the thought of this prospect weighing on Lowell and Jill takes me down, way down. It ought to take you down as well.

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