- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard begins another legislative session Tuesday at the helm of the chamber. He could head to trial as soon as eight weeks later on 23 felony ethics charges.

It is an uncomfortable reality that Republican House leaders, including Hubbard, do not like to discuss.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Hubbard said he never considered giving up the gavel, despite the Republican Party steering committee urging to do so. He said he promised GOP House members in a recent closed door caucus meeting that his pending trial won’t interfere with legislative business.

“I basically told them I’m not going to allow anything to become a distraction,” Hubbard said.

The Republican speaker is scheduled to face trial March 28. While the presiding judge indicated that it is possible that the trial could be delayed because of appeals of pretrial rulings, the trial date now falls in the middle of the 2016 legislative session.

Asked who would preside and manage daily session business in his absence, Hubbard replied, “I’m not going to give any hypotheticals. Obviously, thought about different scenarios, but I don’t want to talk about them … because right now it is not an issue.”

Hubbard faces 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his position as speaker and his former post as Republican Party chairman to benefit his clients and businesses.

The party steering committee - in the most public rebuke of Hubbard since his indictment- earlier this month approved a resolution saying that Hubbard should suspend his leadership role, so the accusations won’t become a distraction to Republicans’ legislative priorities and in the 2016 elections.

“First of all, they are way out of their lane. That’s not what the Republican Party is supposed to do. When I was chairman of the party, the job was to support the Republicans, not to tell us what to do,” Hubbard said.

Prosecutors had accused Hubbard of using his posts to solicit clients and business investments, lobby the governor’s office on behalf of his clients and to steer campaign printing business to one of his companies. Hubbard has maintained his innocence and that the transactions were legal.

Hubbard said in the interview that he never considered stepping down because, “I’m confident when the truth comes out that I will be exonerated and my name cleared.”

Many legislators rallied around Hubbard after his 2014 indictment and shortly afterward they re-elected him as House speaker.

However, cracks in his support appeared as prosecutors dribbled out evidence- including a massive dump of Hubbard’s emails.

Other individual lawmakers said they were concerned as Hubbard’s defense team took actions that were legally prudent but perhaps political brand damaging- such as challenging the constitutionality of the ethics law revamp that Republicans championed in 2010. Other divisions erupted last year over Hubbard’s support of some tax increases in the face of a general fund budget shortfall.

Hubbard’s most vocal critics have discussed attempting to remove him as speaker, a process that would require a majority of House members taking a public vote to oust him.

“I think the speaker is very well supported,” House Majority Leader Micky Hammon said.

Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, announced in October that he would challenge Hubbard for the speakership. But he said he didn’t expect any action on the challenge early in the session.

“This is open-ended. This is something that must continue. There is a cloud over our session,” Williams said. “While I’m the first to support him as innocent until proven guilty, I do not support him in the role as speaker.”

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