Governor takes stand in House Speaker’s ethics trial

Published 9:07 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2016

By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley testified under oath Wednesday that House Speaker Mike Hubbard met with him to discuss economic development projects that prosecutors say could have benefited one of Hubbard’s clients.

That client — a municipal gas utility — was paying Hubbard $12,000 a month at the time. Alabama ethics law forbids lawmakers from taking money to lobby the governor and other members of the executive branch of government.

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Bentley’s testimony provided a dramatic moment as Alabama’s two most powerful politicians faced each other in criminal court. Meanwhile, their fellow Republican, Chief Justice Roy Moore, has been suspended pending a judicial ethics probe into his order barring same-sex marriage licenses, leaving the leaders of all three branches of Alabama’s government enmeshed in scandal.

Hubbard is charged with 23 felony ethics violations, accusing him of abusing his positions as speaker and state GOP chairman as he sought $2.3 million in consulting contracts and investments.

Hubbard has maintained his innocence, saying he stayed within the limits of the law and its exemptions, which include certain actions done for longstanding friends.

But others — even some close Hubbard associates — have expressed concerns that Hubbard was violating the ethics law with some of his actions.

Dax Swatek, a prominent lobbyist, political consultant and member of the speaker’s inner circle, testified Wednesday that Hubbard asked him to make a $150,000 investment in his printing company. Swatek said it was an “awkward” moment when he denied Hubbard’s request, concerned it would violate ethics law.

“It’s at minimum bad perception and based on my understanding of the ethics law, he couldn’t ask and I couldn’t give,” Swatek testified.

Five of the charges accuse Hubbard of seeking investments in his printing firm from lobbyists and companies that employ them. Hubbard’s business partner has testified they decided together to seek $150,000 investments from deep-pocketed individuals to pay off the company’s debts.

Swatek has worked closely with Hubbard since he was first elected to the Legislature in 1998, and was one of three lobbyists who met with the speaker weekly. Defense attorney Bill Baxley had Swatek describe how Hubbard attended his wedding and family birthday parties, to support the friendship exemption defense.

In 17 minutes of sworn testimony, Bentley recalled meeting or working with Hubbard on efforts to recruit a trucking company and an aircraft company to southeast Alabama.

Prosecutor John Gibbs showed Bentley reports that Hubbard sent to Southeast Alabama Gas Company board members, describing how he had met with Bentley and his commerce director on projects that could deliver new customers for the utility.

Gibbs asked Bentley repeatedly if he believed he was meeting with Hubbard in his capacity as speaker.

“I did. He is the speaker of the house,” Bentley said.

The gas utility also paid for Hubbard’s attendance at the 2013 Paris Air Show. The state typically sends a delegation to try to persuade aviation industry executives to bring jobs to the state.

Bentley, who faces possible impeachment on charges of corruption and neglect of duty after admitting he made sexually suggestive remarks to a female aide, offered no commentary on the legality or morality of Hubbard’s actions as the prosecutor focused on the facts.

But on cross-examination, the governor said he didn’t see anything unethical about meeting with Hubbard to discuss the projects, which he felt were good for the state.

Bentley and Hubbard served in the House together before they were catapulted to higher office in 2010. Hubbard was elected as House speaker after helping Republicans win control of the legislature, and Bentley won a longshot election to be governor.