- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley testified Wednesday that House Speaker Mike Hubbard met with him to discuss economic development projects prosecutors said would benefit Hubbard’s business client.

The governor also testified that Hubbard went on a state industry hunting trip to the 2013 Paris Air Show. However, Hubbard’s trip was paid for by the client, a municipal gas company paying him $12,000 per month to do economic recruitment work.

Bentley - still mired in his own scandal involving remarks to a female aide - took the witness stand in the corruption trial of Hubbard, who is accused of using the power of his political office to solicit $2.3 million in consulting work and investments.

The felony ethics charges against Hubbard, who campaigned on cleaning up corruption in Montgomery, are part of a set of embarrassments facing three top GOP office holders. Bentley has faced calls for his impeachment after a sex-tinged scandal involving a former top aide. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore faces his own possible ouster from office over accusations that he violated canons of judicial ethics with efforts to block same-sex marriage in the state.

Hubbard is charged with 23 felony ethics violations, accusing him of using his positions as speaker and state GOP chairman to make money and benefit his clients. Hubbard has maintained his innocence, saying he stayed within the limits of the law and its exemptions, which including one for longstanding friendships.

Prosecutor John Gibbs showed Bentley reports that Hubbard sent to Southeast Alabama Gas District board members, describing how he had met with Bentley and his commerce director on their behalf about industrial prospects for the area that could deliver new customers for the utility.

Gibbs asked Bentley if he believed Hubbard was acting in his capacity as speaker in those meetings.

“I did. He is the speaker of the house,” Bentley said. State ethics law prohibits lawmakers from being paid to lobby the executive branch.

However, under cross-examination by defense lawyer Bill Baxley, Bentley acknowledged that the projects would be good for all of Alabama because it would mean jobs.

In a nod to the state’s complicated and scandal-ridden political landscape, Spencer Collier, the governor’s former law enforcement secretary who first accused Bentley of having an affair, came to the courtroom to watch his former boss testify. The governor’s personal attorney also came to the courthouse in addition to the governor’s office legal adviser.

Three witnesses - including two of Hubbard’s political allies - testified Wednesday that Hubbard asked them or their bosses for $150,000 investments in his printing company, Craftmaster, which was struggling with heavy debt.

Dax Swatek, a prominent lobbyist and member of the speaker’s inner circle, testified it was an “awkward” moment when he denied Hubbard’s request, concerned it would violate ethics law.

“It’s at minimum bad perception, and based on my understanding of the ethics law, he couldn’t ask and I couldn’t give,” Swatek testified.

Steve French, a lobbyist at an investment firm, said Hubbard asked if his boss would invest. French said the request came after a “pivot” in the conversation focused on legislative efforts to help bring the state’s largest county out of bankruptcy, efforts French said his boss was interested in.

Will Brooke, an executive at a finance firm, also testified that Hubbard asked for his help coming up with a plan to restore solvency to the troubled company.

Brooke said he suggested that Hubbard get people to make $150,000 investments in exchange for preferred stock in the company and that he himself invested $150,000. Brooke said Hubbard also would frequently email him his resume in the apparent hopes that he could help him find work.

Hubbard’s defense tried to suggest that the requests fell within a friendship exemption in state ethics law. Swatek described how Hubbard had attended his wedding and other social events.

Swatek also described how Hubbard was stressed about his finances after being laid off by one employer and the continued debts in the printing company. Prosecutor Matt Hart read emails that Hubbard sent Brooke lamenting his financial situation and asking if he knew of “any potential business clients.”

“It is ironic that my quest to change history and (g)ive Alabama a pro-business legislature has resulted in issues in my own personal business life. It is amazing how folks who urged me to be the leader to overthrow the bad guys in Montgomery now don’t want to talk with me,” Hubbard wrote.

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