Alabama speaker's former chief of staff takes stand

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Posted: May 25, 2016 7:56 PM
Alabama speaker's former chief of staff takes stand

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard's former chief of staff testified Wednesday that he became uncomfortable at times when Hubbard's personal business dealings appeared to intersect with the official functions of his office.

Josh Blades— who for four years served as Hubbard's top aide — provided emotional testimony as a prosecution witness at Hubbard's ethics trial. Blades described Hubbard as a "friend" and "good boss," but his voice shook as he recalled times when he was upset and concerned about his former boss's words and actions.

Blades said he was uncomfortable when Hubbard told him he had "one hundred thousand reasons" to help a maker of drinking cups quickly get a patent approved.

"I immediately thought the speaker meant money," Blades testified.

Hubbard had asked Blades to reach out to the patent office and a Mississippi congressman who sat on a patent oversight board. Blades said he only later learned that Hubbard had a consulting contract with the cup company.

Hubbard faces felony ethics charges accusing him of using his political positions to obtain $2.3 million in work and investments. Hubbard earns about $54,000 as speaker. His defense argues that the transactions were proper, and that state ethics law exempts such things as normal business dealings and friendships.

Blades said he was also worried about "legal implications" and an "appearance of impropriety" after later learning that an amendment they agreed to add to a 2013 budget bill could have benefited one of Hubbard's clients.

Blades said he attended a meeting with lobbyists about a possible budget amendment that would set requirements for any pharmacy benefit manager the state Medicaid office might use. Blades said he later learned that the only company to qualify for the work — the Alabama-based American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc. — was paying Hubbard through a consulting contract worth $5,000 a month. APCI works with 1,300 independently owned pharmacies in 23 states as a buying cooperative for medications.

"I was upset because I played a role in what transpired," Blades said.

Blades said that when he asked Hubbard about it, the speaker acknowledged the contract but said he only worked on out-of-state matters for the group. Hubbard directed him to try to remove the language before the bill hit the House floor but it was too late, Blades testified. The former chief of staff also urged Hubbard not to vote on the budget bill because it "looked bad," but Hubbard said it would send up "too many red flags." The language was later stripped in committee.

Under cross-examination from Bill Baxley, Blades acknowledged he and others thought the budget language was good public policy and that Hubbard wanted it removed when Blades suggested it was a problem.

Jason Isbell, Hubbard's former chief counsel, testified that he helped draft the Medicaid amendment but didn't know about the speaker's relationship with the cooperative.

"You didn't know he had an interest in APCI?" acting Attorney General W. Van Davis asked Isbell.

Isbell said he didn't know, adding that he was an attorney in the speaker's office but not the speaker's personal attorney.

Business associates of Hubbard's testified earlier Wednesday, describing one of his companies as deeply in debt while another earned tens of thousands of dollars each month through Hubbard's consulting contracts.

Barry Whatley, a partner with Hubbard in the Craftmaster printing company, said their business was struggling financially, and that he and Hubbard came up with a plan to ask several deep-pocketed individuals for investments of $150,000 each.

"It's almost like raising the Titanic," Whatley said of the company's finances.

Chris Hines, a former vice president at Hubbard's other company, the Auburn Network, said the radio broadcast and publishing firm received checks worth many thousands of dollars each month, and that he wasn't sure what Hubbard did for the money.