Testimony: House speaker hired to open doors with others

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Posted: May 31, 2016 9:21 PM
Testimony: House speaker hired to open doors with others

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — The president of an education curriculum company testified Tuesday that he hired Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, in a $7,500 a month consulting contract, to open doors with legislative leaders in other states as the company tried to sell digital courses to school systems.

Edgenuity President Michael Humphrey said he believed Hubbard — with his legislative and sports background — could get him meetings with legislative leaders that Humphrey said it would take him a year to get on his own.

"My idea was to use Mike to ..... get me a meeting with this guy, let me go meet him," Humphrey said. Humphrey said Hubbard's contract specified that he only worked on matters outside Alabama for the company.

In other testimony Tuesday, the retired director of the Alabama Ethics Commission said he often gave "the drill" to House Speaker Mike Hubbard, cautioning him about actions that would violate the state's ethics law.

Prosecutors called Jim Sumner to give jurors a tutorial on the law and to try to show that Hubbard willfully ignored his advice.

Humphrey said Hubbard's work for the company included calling the then-speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives and emailing Auburn University Athletics Director Jay Jacobs asking for help arranging a meeting for the company with an NCAA executive as it tried to get cleared by the NCAA to sell its products for college athletes.

Hubbard faces 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his political positions to make money and solicit work, investments and clients from people with business before the Alabama Legislature. Prosecutors say Hubbard improperly used the "mantle of his office" to benefit his businesses and clients.

Hubbard has maintained that the transactions were legal and permitted under the exceptions that the state ethics law provides for normal business dealings and longstanding friendships.

Sumner said Hubbard often sought informal ethics advice from him or general counsel Hugh Evans and they repeatedly cautioned him about the restrictions of the law. They gave him an informal letter about his work for a municipal-owned gas utility saying the work would be legal as long as he didn't use the "mantle of his office" to benefit his clients and businesses.

"We always got to the point: I would say, or Hugh would say, 'You remember the drill. You can't use your position to benefit yourself, your business or your family,'" Sumner said.

Sumner served as an expert witness, providing testimony on both the informal advice given to Hubbard and providing general interpretations about what the law allows and doesn't allow.

Sumner said he once called Hubbard with concerns after hearing rumors that a change to the 2013 budget bill could be a major boon for one of Hubbard's clients. Hubbard first asked if those rumors were coming from "enemies" and then added that the matter would be taken care of in conference committee.

What exactly constitutes using the "mantle" of a public office could be a pivotal point in some of the charges in the public corruption trial. Sumner, under questioning from prosecutors, said it was an intangible that included using the aura of a public office to benefit private business clients.

Prosecutors introduced an email from Hubbard in which he described that as boilerplate ethics language and that he was free to introduce himself as speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives.

Under cross-examination by defense lawyer Bill Baxley, Sumner acknowledged Hubbard sought more advice about his business dealings than any other legislator.

"He said, 'I want to know where the line is?'" Baxley asked.

"Correct," Sumner replied.

"To your knowledge, Alabama has a part-time citizen legislature and almost every member has to make a living," Baxley added.

Hubbard's defense has made a point of saying that he sought ethical guidance and followed the law. But informal opinions don't provide the legal protection Hubbard might have received had he sought formal opinions from the five-member Ethics Commission.

The charges against Hubbard were brought by a grand jury convened by the Alabama attorney general's office. Baxley tried to point out that the Alabama Ethics Commission, a panel that reviews allegations of ethics violations, never brought any findings against Hubbard.

However, Sumner said that he did not know about several of the speaker's contracts until after Hubbard was indicted by the grand jury.

"More than half of the things that are before this court were never known to the Ethics Commission," Sumner said.

The trial continues Wednesday with a number of high-profile witnesses. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to testify Wednesday morning.