A federal plea agreement entered by a former Montgomery County assistant principal on Tuesday provided details of a fraud scheme that allegedly bilked the school system out of more than $300,000.
Walter James, who served as assistant principal at Jeff Davis High in Montgomery, pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges for his part in a scheme that, according to the plea agreement, involved former JD principal Bobby Abrams and chief school financial officer Brenda Palmer.
James admits in the document to creating a fictitious consultant business called ED-ONE Professional Development Services. Using that phony company, James then entered into a contract with JD, allegedly signed by Abrams and Palmer, to provide consulting and professional development services — none of which ever occurred.
The school and the MPS central office would pay James for the services. He would deposit those checks and then allegedly provide cash to Abrams and Palmer.
An audit conducted in February, following concerns raised by MPS’ chief financial officer Arthur Watts, uncovered the fraud and found more than $700,000 in misspent money — including on charges at a strip club and liquor stores, and thousands paid out to fictitious businesses.
James was accused of receiving $40,000 from JD and $300,000 from MPS. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Abrams, a former NFL player, and Palmer have not been charged.
Opinion | Alabama’s public corruption problem might just be hopeless
“Mike Hubbard committed crimes with the solitary intention of illegally enriching himself.”
Mike Hubbard stole more than $2 million. Let’s start right there, so we don’t get things twisted, because there’s a tendency in this state, when the criminal is wearing a suit and tie, to believe that the crime wasn’t really a crime and that it was something more complicated and sophisticated than a guy stealing money from you for himself.
This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a wrong place, wrong time deal. He didn’t forget to carry the one and, oops, $2 million landed in his account.
No. Mike Hubbard committed crimes with the solitary intention of illegally enriching himself.
Hubbard used his intelligence and charm and ruthlessness to rise to a position of power that allowed him to influence the budget process, and then he used that position and his intelligence to benefit himself at the expense of state businesses, taxpayers and the state itself.
If Hubbard had his way, one of his clients would have been granted an illegal monopoly, improperly squeezing out other deserving state businesses and possibly costing Alabama citizens their jobs and livelihoods.
In other instances, Hubbard concocted a means by which wealthy business owners in the state could “gift” their “friend” hundreds of thousands of dollars. Money that we all know would have been returned to the friends many times over in the form of friendly legislation and government contracts — which is the very reason such “gifts” were deemed illegal by a Legislature led by Hubbard.
These things were wrong. They were deplorable. And they were, quite blatantly, illegal.
And yet, for the past four-plus years, this state’s judges and lawmakers — actually, let me be accurate: this state’s Republican judges and Republican lawmakers — have bent over backward to bend, alter and change the laws that convicted Hubbard — the laws that Hubbard helped write — in order to reduce or eliminate the sentence handed down to their friend.
Finally, last week, the day before Thanksgiving — the day historically set aside for information dumps of embarrassing news you’re hoping will get lost in a four-day holiday weekend — Lee County Judge Jacob Walker, leaning on the suspect legal work of the Alabama Supreme Court — the most activist court in all of America — cut nearly half of Hubbard’s sentence.
Instead of four years, Hubbard will now serve just 28 months.
That is a travesty.
Not because 28 months instead of four years necessarily sends a message of leniency to future thieves. But because the sordid and embarrassing manner in which the sentence was reduced has been a case study in systemic public corruption and ruling class privilege.
It has made clear that there is one set of laws and rules for the working stiffs and poor and a whole other set for the wealthy and powerful.
When the ethics laws of this state were adopted several years ago, Republicans, including Hubbard, hailed them as true game-changers for Alabama politics. They talked loudly and often about how necessary these ethics laws were to remove the stench of corruption and pay-to-play favoritism from our state government. They promised that these laws would help level the playing field and restore the faith of Alabama citizens in their government.
All of that was BS.
Within months, the primary architect of those laws was secretly plotting to circumvent them in the interest of personal gain, his private emails showed us. Not only that, he and top ALGOP officials and donors were conspiring together to subvert those laws and enrich themselves.
What they were doing was not in the interest of “economic development” or business growth in the state or even innocent mistakes. It was willful, purposeful schemes meant to get around the laws and use their public offices to benefit themselves.
In one email Hubbard actually writes: “those ethics laws … what were we thinking?”
Despite this clear intent and despite a solid verdict from a thoughtful Lee County jury, for the last four years, Republican lawmakers have attempted time and again to change the ethics laws — to weaken them and insert loopholes into them. They have succeeded twice.
At the same time, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court — all elected Republicans — spent an unbelievable and unheard-of amount of time to pick apart the Hubbard verdict and cast doubt on the laws that convicted him.
In both courts, the opinions mentioned the “unintentional consequences” of the laws, implying that lawmakers in the state could unwittingly find themselves as accidental lawbreakers as they innocently conducted the business of the state.
Oddly, not one lawmaker from either party has committed such a violation or even almost committed one.
And no one believes that Hubbard committed such an unwitting violation of the laws.
Because he didn’t.
Hubbard knew full well what the law was. He knew full well that what he was doing was illegal — his closest associates testified as much in open court. He worked tirelessly to concoct ways to subvert those laws and enrich himself, and there is a mountain of evidence that proves it.
And yet, our criminal justice system and our state Legislature spent the last four years trying to get him out of it.
That’s a level of corruption that is so staggering and consuming that I honestly don’t know if there’s any hope to combat it.
Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence
The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.
Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two.
Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on one counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another five counts.
Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”
Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.”
“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.
Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his sentence should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.
“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law. Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”
State Rep: Lee County DA’s past cases should be reviewed by AG, DOJ
Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, wants the AG’s office or DOJ to examine all of the DA’s previous cases for similar issues.
A state representative from Lee County is calling on the Alabama attorney general’s office and the Department of Justice to open an investigation into past cases handled by indicted Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes.
Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, said that in light of the details regarding Hughes’ indictment and arrest, he wants the AG’s office or DOJ to examine all of Hughes’s previous cases for similar issues. Gray also wants the public to be allowed to come forward if they were ever extorted or mistreated by Hughes.
“In light of the very serious and disturbing charges facing Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes, and the brazen nature of his alleged crimes in which he used the power of his office to extort vulnerable citizens — including by threatening them with bogus charges — I call on the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the US Department of Justice to open an inquiry into possible other instances in which Hughes misused the power of his office against the people of Lee County,” Gray said in a statement. “That investigation should include a thorough review of all convictions and indictments procured by Hughes and should allow the people of Lee County an opportunity to report any additional instances of Hughes misusing his office.”
Hughes was charged on Monday with seven felony ethics counts, including allegedly using a DA’s subpoena to steal a pickup truck and using another subpoena to allegedly coerce a private business into aiding his defense. Hughes was also accused of hiring private attorneys with public money to benefit himself and his wife, and accused of hiring his three children to work in his office.
He was arrested Monday afternoon on felony perjury charges for lying to a grand jury about his alleged crimes.
Lee County DA arrested on second perjury charge
The arrest was based on a complaint filed by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, charging him with first-degree perjury.
Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes — who was arrested Sunday on seven counts of ethics violations, theft and perjury — was arrested again on Monday for an additional perjury charge, according to the Alabama attorney general’s office.
Hughes on Monday was booked in Montgomery County jail based on a complaint filed by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, charging him with an additional count of first-degree perjury for allegedly giving false testimony to the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Hughes was previously indicted on five counts of violating the state ethics act for using his office for personal gain, including paying private attorneys with public funds to settle a matter that benefited himself and his wife, according to Marshall’s office. He was also charged with illegally hiring his three children to work for his office.
The grand jury also indicted Hughes on a charge of illegally using his office for personal benefit by issuing a district attorney’s subpoena to a private business to gather evidence for his defense to potential criminal charges, according to the statement.
Hughes was also charged with conspiracy for allegedly agreeing with others to steal a 1985 Ford Ranger pickup truck from a Chambers County business by using a Lee County search warrant to force the business to release possession of the truck, according to the statement.
The five violations of the state ethics law charged in the indictment are Class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $30,000. The charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree theft and first-degree perjury are Class C felonies, each punishable by one year and one day to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.