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Barron Trial Delayed during AG Appeal of Relationship Ruling

By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

The trial of former Alabama Senate veteran Lowell Barron – which was scheduled for today – has been delayed pending the Attorney General’s appeal of pretrial motion rulings.

According to court documents, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office appealed a pretrial motion ruling made by DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Randall Cole which would bar introduction of any evidence at trial about a possible romantic relationship between Barron and his former Senate and campaign staffer Rhonda Jill Johnson.

Barron, who was an Alabama Senator for 28 years – until his narrow, 628 vote defeat in 2010 by Republican Shadrack McGill – was also the mayor of Fyffe for over a decade before his long stint in the legislature, which ended in his serving as Senate Pro Tem from 1999 until 2007 and his tenure as chair of the Senate Rules Committee until his electoral loss three years later.

In late 2012, he was nearly fatally injured in a tractor accident. A few months later, in April 2013, Barron, as well as his former assistant Rhonda Johnson, were indicted by a DeKalb County grand jury on several campaign finance charges stemming from nearly $60,000 in ill-advised campaign expenditures from Barron to Johnson, as well as the gifting of a 2007 Toyota for “campaign” uses.

Barron’s trial was set to begin today, April 14, but because of the AG’s appeal, it has been automatically delayed until the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals makes a ruling on the appeal of the outcome of the pretrial motion.

The upcoming trial was recently under scrutiny when Barron’s attorney attempted to have Attorney General Luther Strange subpoenaed in order to question him about campaign finance reports disclosing similar practice over which he was prosecuting the former Senate Democrat. The Alabama Political Reporter’s coverage of that legal battle can be seen here.

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In its brief supporting the delay of the trial for appeal, the Attorney General’s Office, represented by Assistant AG Bill Lisenby, noted that the suppression of evidence allegedly implicating a romantic evidence is “fatal” to its case.

In its opposing brief, Barron’s attorney, renowned attorney Joe Espy, pointed both to the over four hundred people who had been called for jury duty already in preparation for the trial and to a lack of standing to appeal the ruling as reasons the court should deny a delay in the trial.

Friday afternoon, Judge Cole issued an order delaying his appeal – a necessity under Alabama court procedure – until the pretrial decision is reviewed.

Former Senator Lowell Barron has responded to the trial’s delay:

Luther Strange has never stepped one foot in Dekalb County. He and his staff from Montgomery have been dragging this case out for over 3 years trying to discover any wrongdoing, including more than 8 grand jury sessions in two different counties, and they have continued to be unsuccessful. He has tried again and again to delay this case because he has no case. I have been waiting long enough for my day in court and, once again, he has delayed this trial. Their appeal is likely to delay my day in court until after the November election, which interestingly will prevent our defense from presenting evidence showing that Luther Strange paid more than $85,000 to one campaign staffer in bonuses after his 2010 election. He knows that we were prepared to show that he has charged me with doing something that is ordinary and customary in campaigns and elections – no different than what he has done in the past himself. Once again, I ask Luther Strange to stop denying me my day in court.”

defendant, Rhonda Jill Johnson, spoke out to the Alabama Political Reporter in a two part interview, somewhat distancing herself from her former employer.

While Lowell was standing on the Ft. Payne Courthouse steps,” Johnson told APR, “I was sitting behind bars waiting for my daughter to borrow the money to post my bail.”

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Barron had given a press conference – still in a neck brace from his tractor debacle – after he was released from booking on the steps of the Fort Payne Courthouse to express his view that the arrest was part of nothing but a “witch hunt” pursued by “Luther Strange from Montgomery.” He went as far as to say that being killed in the accident would have been better than Attorney General Strange ruining his good name and reputation.

Johnson’s interviews with the Alabama Political Reporter can be read here and here.

The campaign finance trial will begin after a ruling on the Attorney General’s appeal.


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