By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
OPELIKA – In any trial, criminal or otherwise, there are good days for the prosecution and defense. And there are bad days.
Tuesday’s fifth day of the Mike Hubbard corruption trial was devastating for the defense.
One never knows what a jury might do, and Speaker of the House Hubbard hasn’t been convicted of anything. Yet. Jim Sumner, the retired executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, was the main witness, and his testimony was not good news for Hubbard.
If Hubbard is convicted of even one of the 23 felonies he’s charged with, he immediately loses his speakership and seat in the Legislature.
Sumner’s expert testimony during the questioning by prosecutor Matt Hart had to give former Attorney General Bill Baxley and the rest of Hubbard’s legal team a massive migraine.
Baxley objected numerous times to Hart’s questioning, but most of those objections were overruled. Baxley even objected to Sumner being certified an expert on the state ethics law, but he lost that parlay as well. After all, Sumner was in charge of the Ethics Commission for nearly two decades.
As he testified, Sumner was confident and answered questions thoroughly. At one point, in what had to be a frustrating day for the defense, Baxley simply said “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The jury did not seem to be amused. A lawyer friend who has conducted many jury trials told me that jurors do not like continuous objections. It appears, he said, like the objector is trying to hide something. And, indeed, Baxley was trying his best to shut down Hart’s questions, but to little effect.
Yet, when Baxley had his shot to rebut Sumner, he got nowhere. Indeed, he came across as condescending to Sumner, who wasn’t fazed by Baxley’s cross-examination. Sumner was the consummate professional and a strong witness. Just as it appeared during opening statements last Tuesday, it looks as if Baxley really doesn’t have much to work with.
Bill Britt, Alabama Political Reporter’s editor in chief, said this was the worst day for the defense since Hubbard’s former chief of staff, Josh Blades, testified last week. APR Associate Editor Susan Britt agreed.
Baxley certainly met his match with Hart and Sumner. While Sumner was not allowed to testify as an expert on the direct charges against Hubbard, Hart skillfully used theoretical situations to draw Sumner’s response to various ethics violations. Responding to Hart’s theoreticals, Sumner said such acts would violate the ethics law and would be illegal.
I worked with Sumner throughout his long tenure at the Ethics Commission. He always was sharp and ran a good shop, even before the ethics law was made stronger after Hubbard and the Republicans took over the Legislature in 2010. Though Hubbard supported the changes to the ethics law in the House, he has since argued provisions are unconstitutional, an argument he lost.
On Tuesday, it was clear Sumner, who retired in 2014, still has that sharp edge and delivered withering testimony against Hubbard. There’s still a long way to go – the defense hasn’t had its opportunity to go on the offensive.
Yet, what we’ve seen so far from the defense has not been impressive. In football lingo, it is said the best defense is a good offense. But if the offense is crappy, there is no good defense.
It’s possible Mike Hubbard just can’t give his defense team what it needs most: An innocent client.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every Wednesday for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]