Top Alabama Lawmakers Embroiled In Political Scandal

May 27, 2016
Originally published on May 27, 2016 6:05 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Alabama has hit the trifecta of political scandal. Three top elected officials, one from each branch of government, are in trouble. The house speaker is on trial for public corruption. The chief justice has been suspended for possible judicial ethics violations, and a sex scandal has the governor in the crosshairs of state and federal investigators. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now to sort through all this. And, Debbie, this sounds like a mess. What's the common thread?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, there's not necessarily a common thread. These are three separate cases. But certainly when you have three of the state's top Republican elected officials facing removal from office depending on how it all plays out, that's a pretty big situation.

CORNISH: Let's start with the house speaker. It's a corruption trial he's facing. What are the accusations?

ELLIOTT: This is about whether Speaker Mike Hubbard used his office for personal gain. He is facing 23 felony ethics charges, a bit ironic because this is under an ethics law that he championed shortly after he orchestrated the Republican supermajority in the Alabama State House.

Prosecutors say Hubbard used his speakership and at the same time his post as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party to benefit his private businesses. He had a consulting firm and he had a printing business in Auburn, that to the tune of more than $2 million.

Now, Hubbard denies he did nothing wrong, that he was doing business with friends and that's legal. He calls this trial a political witch hunt. The witness lineup includes this who's who of Alabama's political elite. There are politicians, lobbyists, business executives, executive, a former governor and even the current governor could end up on the stand.

CORNISH: And let's talk a little bit more about the governor, Robert Bentley. It was revealed that he had an inappropriate relationship with a top political aide. They were both married. How has this become a legal problem for him?

ELLIOTT: Well, he's facing an impeachment push in the legislature and then multiple investigations by both state and federal authorities. So the legal questions here involve whether Governor Bentley misused state resources to cover up what was going on. Bentley, who is 73, denies a physical affair. But he has admitted to making inappropriate remarks to his 44-year-old former senior political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason. And tape recordings of those conversations have been made public. Mason resigned, and ever since Bentley has been under increasing pressure to resign himself.

CORNISH: And finally, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore finds himself fighting to stay on the bench after defying federal courts. And this is not the first time he's been in trouble, right Debbie?

ELLIOTT: Right. If you remember back in 2003, Moore was removed as chief justice then when he refused to abide by a federal court order to remove this giant Ten Commandments monument that he had put in the state Judicial Building. Then he was later re-elected as chief justice.

Now he's facing another judicial ethics trial, this time for his defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Now, Moore is vigorously defending his stance. He says this is about the power of a justice to speak about what he thinks is right. Here's what he said after he was suspended.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY MOORE: This is not about any wrongdoing I've done. This is not about ethics. This is about marriage.

ELLIOTT: So that trial is coming up later this year. And in the meantime, as we said, he has been removed. He's suspended pending that trial.

CORNISH: How unusual is this for Alabama? I mean, what are people down there saying about this all?

ELLIOTT: I think generally there's a sense of embarrassment, although each of these politicians certainly have their own supporters. But it is remarkable to have the top three elected officials all under scrutiny at the same time.

However, we should put this into context. Public corruption and cronyism are nothing new. Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, a Democrat, remains in federal prison today on corruption charges. And then former Alabama Governor Guy Hunt, a Republican was ousted from office after a conviction in the '90s.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.