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APR’s top five stories of 2019

Eddie Burkhalter

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The year was busy for journalists across the state, and it was no different at APR, where reporters dug into the biggest stories of 2019 to give readers a glimpse at what was happening behind closed doors.  

From a broken prison system to an unpopular toll bridge project that ran out of pavement, here’s a look at what we think is the top five, in no particular order. 

Justice on pause 

Former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard remains free after a Lee County jury convicted him on 12 felony counts of public corruption in June 2016.  The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed one of those counts, bringing Hubbard’s tally to 11 felony convictions. 

Hubbard’s fate now rests with the Alabama Supreme Court, which in March agreed to review his convictions

To many, Hubbard’s continued freedom after the many felony convictions is yet another example of corruption gone-amuck in a state government that preaches morality but practices power over justice. 

“Hubbard destroyed lives and careers because he could. He used government as not only a means of enriching himself and his cronies but also as a weapon to ruin others,” wrote APR’s Editor in Chief Bill Britt wrote in a February editorial. “…It is time for the state’s high court to do its duty. Send Mike Hubbard to jail.” 

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Gas tax passes

It had been tried by others before, and had always failed, but Alabama Governor Kay Ivey in March called the Legislature into a special session aimed at moving her plan for a fuel tax increase to pay for infrastructure projects across the goal line. 

Ivey was successful, and in March she signed the new 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax into law. The tax increase took effect Sept. 1 and is expected to raise about $320 million a year. 

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Just as had happened in previous attempts, Ivey’s push for the gas tax increase didn’t come without some pushback. 

The Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee in March passed a resolution urging lawmakers to oppose the fuel tax increase, APR’s Brandon Mosley reported, while Democratic leaders in both the Alabama House and the Senate were divided on the matter

Ivey’s office in October announced a first round of 28 road and bridge projects to be paid for with the new gas tax revenue.  

“An investment in our roads and bridges is an investment in the future of Alabama,” Ivey said at the time. “I am proud to see projects resulting from the Rebuild Alabama Act already getting off the ground. Soon, every Alabama citizen will feel the benefits from this additional investment in our infrastructure.” 

Prisons in crisis

This year Alabama’s history of systemic prison problems took yet another turn when the U.S. Department of Justice in April released a report detailing high levels of sexual assaults and violence. 

The DOJ found reasonable cause to believe the problems amount to a potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The threat of a federal takeover of the state’s prison system still looms large. 

Gov. Ivey in July through an executive order formed the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, which spent the following months touring prisons and meeting to discuss the overcrowded, dangerous prison system’s myriad problems. The group is set to make policy recommendations before the next legislative session starts on Feb. 4. 

In February, three months before the DOJ’s report was released, Gov. Ivey announced a plan to build three new mega-prisons at an estimated cost of $900 million. Eventually, that plan became a build-and-lease proposal, which circumvented the need for the Legislature to approve the costly project.

Today four companies are in the running to build, then lease, those prisons back to the state, but the process started out with little transparency

Meanwhile, the death toll inside prisons continues to rise. During 2019 at least 27 inmates died as a result of suspected drug overdoses, murder or suicide. 

The Abortion ban

The Alabama Legislature in May approved the state’s abortion law – deemed the harshest in the Nation and one that makes no exception for cases of rape or incest – and the news quickly spread worldwide. 

Soon after Gov. Ivey signed it into law the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and Planned Parenthood Federation of America filed a lawsuit challenging the law.  

In October a federal judge in Montgomery blocked Alabama’s abortion ban, setting the stage for what was planned all along, to send the case on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which assured a woman’s right to an abortion. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to review a lower court ruling on a previous Alabama abortion law, which was passed in 2016. That attempt and other anti-abortion laws have cost the state nearly $2.5 million in court costs. 

A toll bridge too far

The toll would have cost between $3 and $6 to drive over the planned I-10 bridge that would have connected Mobile and Baldwin Counties, but the decades-long planned project died after public outcry over the costly toll. 

Perhaps the best signal that the project was on shaky ground was when state Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, came out against the toll in August.  

“The matter of toll roads and bridges should be left up to local communities with input from their citizens and legislators on what is fair and how those much those tolls should be,” Marsh said at the time. “I will, explore all legislative options to ensure this project is fair and reasonable to the citizens of South Alabama — and a $6 toll is not fair or reasonable.”

Estimates had put the cost of the River Bridge and Bayway at $2.1 billion before an 8-1 vote by the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization in August killed the projects. 

“With the action taken today, there is no pathway forward, and this project is dead,” Gov. Ivey said after the vote. 

Before that vote state Auditor Jim Zeigler became the face of the opposition to the toll bridge, at one time claiming to have started the Facebook group “Block the Mobile BayWay Toll” before telling APR that he’d only joined the movement early on.

 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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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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Mike Hubbard booked into jail more than four years after conviction

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has been booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Detention Center at 5:05 p.m. Friday, beginning a four-year prison sentence that took years to start after his original conviction in 2016. He is now 57.

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has been booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

The Alabama Supreme Court in April upheld six of Hubbard’s 11 convictions of using his office for personal gain. A Lee County Circuit Judge had sentenced Hubbard to prison for four years. He was to turn himself into the Lee County Detention Center to be processed into the Alabama Department of Corrections system.

Prior to turning himself in on Friday, Hubbard had been out on bond for four years. The Alabama Supreme Court on Aug. 28 announced that the court had denied Hubbard’s appeal for a new hearing.

“The long road to justice is finally nearing its end for former Speaker Mike Hubbard,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement. “The court denied Mr. Hubbard’s application for rehearing and issued a certificate of judgment requiring the former speaker to report to begin serving his prison sentence.”

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