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Alabama’s top 5 political new stories of 2018

Josh Moon

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As usual, 2018 was a busy year for state political news in Alabama.

From indictments and scandals to big election wins and controversial legislation, here are the top five political stories of the past year.

5. Superfund convictions

 After months of embarrassing stories for Alabama politicians, a federal grand jury finally brought some closure to one of the most disgusting public corruption scandals in state history with the convictions of a former Drummond Coal executive and a high-ranking lawyer from the powerful Balch & Bingham law firm.

Joel Gilbert, a former Balch partner, and David Roberson, a former VP at Drummond, were convicted on numerous charges stemming from their bribery of former state Rep. Oliver Robinson.

The scandal involved Gilbert and Roberson — and others — working through Robinson — and other entities — to block the cleanup of a major pollution site in north Birmingham.  

4. The Ethics Sheriff gets the boot

In the least politically ethical state in the country, it’s hard to find good guys — the guys who take on corruption and who aren’t scared of the arrows coming back their way. Matt Hart was probably Alabama’s best good guy in the fight for an ethical government.

Now, he’s gone. Done in by Steve Marshall who owed a favor to the big-money donors who helped get Marshall elected AG and who despise Hart.

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There is no fear in Montgomery now, as lawmakers slowly rewrite and blow up ethics laws meant to prevent them from misusing their offices. And without Hart to crack down on at least a few of them, it’s open season for corruption.

3. Hubbard denied

Only in Alabama could a guy convicted of 12 felonies be out of prison more than two years after those convictions as he awaits appeal. But that’s the story of Mike Hubbard, the former Speaker of the House.

Hubbard STILL isn’t in jail, despite the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding his convictions on all but one charge. That decision came down in August, and the court declined to reconsider that decision in September. Hubbard was convicted in June 2016.

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He remains free as the Alabama Supreme Court considers his appeal.  

2. Still corrupt

While Hubbard and Robinson garnered most of the headlines over the last year, with their high-profile cases, that didn’t mean other Alabama lawmakers weren’t being indicted. They were.

In the last year, Republicans Ed Henry, Randy Davis and Jack Williams were all indicted for various crimes. All were sitting lawmakers at the time of their indictments. In addition, former GOP chairman Marty Connors was also indicted.

And the corruption didn’t stop there. The head of the EPA in the Southeastern District and the former chairman of the environmental regulatory agency were also indicted on charges of misusing their offices. And several local politicians and sheriffs were also indicted for various misdeeds.  

1. The Red Wave

This year was supposed to be different for Democrats in Alabama. With a national blue wave that saw Democrats pick up an astonishing 40 House seats and earn about 9 million more votes than Republicans across the country, Alabama went the other way.

In statewide races, Republicans earned roughly 60 percent of the vote in every race. And they increased their already-supermajority advantage in the state Legislature. That was mainly due to the straight-ticket voting option on Alabama ballots. (The state is one of just six with such an option.)

That option allowed voters to check a single box and vote for the party of choice instead of individual candidates.

The result: A gubernatorial candidate, Walt Maddox, who traveled thousands of miles across the state and was generally well liked and well received, still lost by 20 points — the same basic result as previous, weaker Democratic candidates for governor — to a Republican, Kay Ivey, who was uninspiring and absent for long stretches during the campaign.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Corruption

Former Barbour County sheriff arrested, charged with taking money from sheriff’s office

Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Tuesday announced the arrest of Leroy Davie Upshaw, the former sheriff of Barbour County, on charges that he used his office for personal gain. 

Upshaw, 49, surrendered to the Barbour County Sheriff’s Office on Monday and was released on bond, according to a Marshall’s office. He had served as sheriff until his term ended in January 2019. 

Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office, Marshall’s office alleges. One charge alleges that he used his public office to receive personal financial gain and the other charge alleges that he used his office to obtain financial gain for members of his family. 

The Dothan Eagle reported in 2018 that Upshaw’s troubles began when the sheriff’s office was audited and cited for 11 errors, including one in which Upshaw gave himself the additional salary that had gone to the former work release administrator.

If convicted of the class B felony of using his office for personal gain, Upshaw could face up to 20 years in prison.

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Corruption

Attorney general opposes motion to reconsider Hubbard’s prison sentence

“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard reported for his prison sentence at the Lee County Detention Facility on Sept. 11.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a court filing Tuesday opposed a request by former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s attorney for the court to reconsider his 4-year sentence on six felony ethics violations.

Marshall in the filing said that after four years of appeals, Hubbard remains convicted of those felonies.

“This Court’s carefully calibrated sentence of a four-year split, among other penalties, properly accounted for the severity of Hubbard’s crimes, the position of trust he abused, and the need for serious penalties to deter other wrongdoers,” Marshall wrote to the court. “In addition, Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency now that he is finally in jail.”

“In sum, nothing material has changed since Hubbard earned his four-year sentence four years ago. It’s simply time for him to serve it. Accordingly, his motion should be denied,’ Marshall continued.

Hubbard had originally been convicted by a Lee County jury on 12 ethics violations, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of those convictions, but the Alabama Supreme Court later reversed five of those convictions and upheld six.

He began serving his four-year sentence for the six convictions of using his office for personal gain on Sept. 11.

Hubbard’s attorney argued in a separate court filing that the court should reconsider his sentence because five of the 12 convictions were reversed, but Marshall told the court Tuesday that the sentence Hubbard received was just.

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“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court.

Hubbard’s attorney in his request to reconsider sentencing also argued that Hubbard has already suffered from a “divestment of his business interests.”

Hubbard’s convictions related to consulting contracts that enriched him while he served as speaker.

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The state’s attorney general at the time of his conviction determined that Hubbard had bilked Alabama out of more than $2 million.

“Suffice it to say, it is a bad advocacy strategy for Hubbard to mourn his loss of an income stream worth millions, which he financed on the backs of hard-working Alabamians who expected an honest elected official. That Hubbard has lost some of these ill-gotten gains in no way suggests that Hubbard has paid back his debt to society,” Marshall wrote to the court.

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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

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“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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Corruption

Mike Hubbard’s attorney asks court to reconsider prison sentence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Mike Hubbard reported to the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, 2020. (VIA LEE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)

One week after he began serving his prison sentence, the attorney for former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has asked the court to reconsider his four-year sentence.

Hubbard, 57, began serving his sentence on Sept. 11 after being free on an appeals bond for four years. He was ultimately convicted on six felony charges of using his office for personal gain.

“Mike Hubbard is not a danger to society, nor a threat to the public and a revised sentence will better serve the State’s interest in rehabilitation and the ends of justice,” Hubbard’s Birmingham attorney, David McKnight, wrote to the Lee County Circuit Court on Friday.

Hubbard had originally been convicted by a Lee County jury on 12 ethics violations, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of those convictions, but the Alabama Supreme Court later reversed five of those convictions and upheld six.

McKnight, in his motion to the court, argues that due process compels the court to reconsider Hubbard’s sentence, and that his removal from office, loss of the right to vote and “divestment of business interests” have already punished the former House speaker.

The state’s attorney general at the time of his conviction determined that Hubbard had bilked Alabama out of more than $2 million.

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