By Tom Baxter
It hasn’t taken long at all for ethics to be moved off the front burner in Georgia.
With the election safely passed, Gov. Nathan Deal has delayed for another year his proposal to revamp — or would that be re-revamp? — the state ethics commission, and bills have been filed in both the House and Senate which effectively put the burden on the state to prove its error-prone computer system didn’t screw up the disclosure forms before it can collect outstanding fines for local politicians who filed late. The embarrassing and costly settlement last year of a case brought by former ethics commission employees is a memory now, and the state is moving on.
It’s a different case, however, in Georgia’s neighboring states, where two powerful state house speakers have been indicted in a matter of months.
The cases have a lot of similarities. Charleston Republican Bobby Harrell, son of a state highway commissioner who showed considerable skill moving up in the ranks of the South Carolina House to become speaker in 2005, was enough of a power in state and Republican Party politics to shake off a frosty relationship with Gov. Nikki Haley, who he once removed from a legislative committee.
But about three years ago Harrell began to come under more scrutiny for his use of campaign funds. At a certain level of state politics, particularly in South Carolina, cases like this nearly always involve the use of a private plane, which is what this one gradually settled around. After South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson turned the case over to a state grand jury, Harrell waged a behind-the-scenes battle to have Wilson disqualified from being the prosecutor. Wilson then tapped a special prosecutor who swiftly got him indicted.
Last October, the once-powerful speaker resigned his office and pleaded guilty to six counts of public misconduct. He agreed to cooperate with any ongoing federal or state investigations involving the legislature. The new speaker, Republican Jay Lucas, has promised a spate of new bills to reform the state’s ethics laws.
Alabama’s Mike Hubbard, an Auburn broadcaster and businessman, has been an even bigger player in his state’s party and legislative politics than Harrell in South Carolina. As he describes in his book, “Storming the State House,” Hubbard, a former state party chairman, led the fight which finally wrested control of the state legislature in 2010, focusing heavily on Democratic corruption.
According to a 23-count indictment which came down in Alabama the same week Harrell was pleading guilty in South Carolina, Hubbard also enriched himself in the process, steering business to a company he controlled while he was party chairman, and soliciting business from some of the state’s most powerful business and political leaders. As did Harrell, he has dismissed the charges as politically motivated, but while Hubbard has been accused of unfairly working his connections in the past, the problems that led to his indictment stem from an audit of party finances ordered by the state chairman who succeeded him. As in the South Carolina case, the state attorney general, Luther Strange, passed the case on to a special prosecutor when accused of politics by the speaker, and that led to the indictments.
From there the two cases diverge, at least for now. Hubbard faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $30,000 in fines on each of the 23 counts, but he had dug in hard. In January, he won re-election as speaker, with 99 of the 105 legislators — a tally that includes a number of Democrats — voting for him.
It’s a messy case, including a former deputy state attorney general accused of leaking information to Hubbard during his investigation. Hubbard’s lawyers have requested that the prosecution provide the names of any legislators or governor’s office staff they’ve talked with during their investigation, which could make the case even messier.
Meanwhile, the number of bills being pre-filed in advance of this year’s legislative session in Alabama has dwindled to a bare handful. While Hubbard’s fate remains unknown before his trial later this year, so does much of the state’s business.
Both cases serve as a warning that ethics, left on the back burner too long, can come to a boil with surprising speed.