- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - Prosecutors and defense lawyers traded accusations Tuesday during a contentious hearing over Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s claim of prosecutorial misconduct in his ethics case.

A prosecutor’s conversations with Baron Coleman, a political consultant often at odds with Hubbard, took center stage.

Hubbard’s lawyers claimed the conversations were information-sharing sessions designed to improperly damage Hubbard politically. However, prosecutors said Coleman was a key “confidential informant” in the investigation and the defense is resorting to “trickery” to try to stop the case scheduled to go to trial next month.

Defense lawyer Lance Bell accused prosecutor Matt Hart of violating grand jury secrecy law and improperly using his public office to influence Hubbard’s 2014 primary election. Bell said that was grounds to dismiss the case against Hubbard, or at least bring in new prosecutors.

“We have the attorney general’s office feeding information back and forth. … Baron Coleman is using them to further his cause to destroy Mike Hubbard,” Bell told Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob Walker.

Walker said he wanted more information from Coleman and others and granted a defense request for an evidentiary hearing on the misconduct claim. The hearing is scheduled March 3.

The defense submitted an affidavit this month in which Coleman - who worked for Hubbard’s 2014 primary opponent - said he had dozens of conversations with Hart and used the information for a “whisper campaign” against Hubbard. It’s unclear exactly what Hart told Coleman during the discussions. Coleman, in his affidavit, wrote that he “concluded” the information came from the grand jury investigation.

Meanwhile, Coleman’s business partner submitted an affidavit to prosecutors saying that Coleman said he would infer who was testifying based on the questions that Hart asked during their discussions.

Prosecutors said Hubbard’s defense is trying to orchestrate delays in the case and that there was no evidence of improper sharing of grand jury information. They said they also were investigating why Hubbard’s former political nemesis submitted an affidavit that was aiding Hubbard’s defense.

“It’s all a common plan and scheme to generate continuance after continuance after continuance in this case,” Acting Attorney General W. Van Davis told the judge.

Prosecutors said that there were legitimate law enforcement purposes to the conversations with Coleman.

Hubbard is scheduled to go to trial March 28 on felony ethics charges of using his political offices to benefit his businesses through legislative action, lobbying the governor’s office or soliciting new clients and investments. He has maintained his innocence and says the transactions were proper.

Bell said Hart was “grasping at straws” about the relationship with Coleman. Bell said in at least one recorded conversation Hart told Coleman that Coleman was a source, but not an informant. The distinction could affect whether the conversations were considered legally confidential and privileged.

Walker asked during the hearing why Coleman approached the defense.

“Why did Baron Coleman flip over? We have some ideas, but it’s a law enforcement matter,” Hart said.

Coleman in his affidavit said he felt threatened by Hart.

The hearing also indicated that Hubbard has added prominent defense lawyers to his legal team, although they did not argue the motions Tuesday.

Former attorney general Bill Baxley said he would be representing Hubbard. Baxley said he was also requesting a delay in the trial date as he joins the case.

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