Ken Hare In Depth: Hubbard attack on ethics law unconscionable - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

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Ken Hare In Depth: Hubbard attack on ethics law unconscionable

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

It's time for Mike Hubbard to resign as speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives. 
The Republican state representative from Auburn faces 23 felony counts of using his public office for private gain. If convicted, he would be removed from the Legislature.

He also has proved to be an embarrassment to the state Republican Party, leading some prominent Republicans to call for him to step down from his role as the leader of the Alabama House.

But those are not the reasons he should resign as House speaker.

As he scrambles to defend himself against these criminal charges, Hubbard and his legal team seem to be doing everything in their power to undermine the Alabama Ethics Act. Those desperate attacks on the state's ethics law are the real reason he should step down as speaker. 
In fact, those attacks are the reason that Alabamians who want honest and open government should demand he step down or that the House membership replace him.

Hubbard strongly maintains his innocence. Even if he is not convicted, it will be months before the trial concludes. It is now scheduled for March, which probably will fall smack-dab in the middle of the 2016 regular legislative session.

But even if he is not convicted, his attack on the Ethics Act shows he does not deserve to lead the Alabama House.

Recently State Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan said publicly that Hubbard should step down as speaker because of the pending ethics case. Three House members also have called publicly for Hubbard to resign as speaker.

There are other arguments for Hubbard to step aside -- the likelihood that the time he spends on preparing his defense will leave inadequate time and attention for the business of the Legislature and the embarrassment to the state Republican Party among them.

But it is his attack on the Ethics Act that should matter most to everyday Alabamians. 

Strengthening the Ethics Act was one of the highlights of the Republican agenda when the GOP gained a supermajority in the Legislature. Hubbard not only voted for the changes, he praised them.

Now as part of his criminal defense, Hubbard is claiming the state Ethics Act's prohibition against legislators lobbying is unconstitutional. Without that provision, the ethics law would be gutted.

Prosecutors responded to Hubbard's claim by writing: "Boiled down to its essence, Hubbard's argument is that he has a constitutional right to be a legislator lobbyist, or perhaps a lobbyist legislator, who earns an extremely handsome living by catering to the interests of his powerful lobbying clients and using his public position to advance their goals ahead of those of the average citizens who elected him to that position."

I couldn't have said it better.

But the state ethics law is under attack in ways other than his legal defense claims.

Rep. Phil Williams, R-Monrovia, who is seeking to replace Hubbard as House speaker, has told media outlets that he believes Hubbard was behind bills during a recent special session that would have damaged the Ethics Act while helping Hubbard in his legal defense.

Williams told al.com that one of the bills introduced by Hubbard supporters would have weakened ethics law provisions barring state government officials from lobbying and declared that contributions to an elected official's legal defense fund was not a "thing of value" under the ethics law. 
If passed, that would have allowed Hubbard and other elected officials to take legal defense fund contributions from special interests who want favors from them.  

The other bill would have set up a committee named by legislative leaders -- including the House speaker -- to oversee budget requests by state agencies. The joint House-Senate committee would have had the power to audit agencies and affect ongoing spending outside and after the budget process. (It most likely also would have violated constitutional separation of powers provisions.) 

Under the bill, the House speaker would have directly appointed four members of the committee as well as controlled the appointment of two committee chairman who would have served on the 12-member joint oversight panel.

The fear among many in the administration and the Legislature was that the committee would have so much power over agency spending that they could pressure agency directors to do their bidding -- even to shut down investigations.

Neither bill passed, but they show that efforts to undermine the ethics law are alive and well in the Hubbard-led House.

At one time Alabama had one of the strongest ethics laws in the nation, but over the years court decisions and legislative revisions gradually undermined its effectiveness. The new GOP majority in the Legislature strengthened it somewhat a few years ago. But Hubbard's legal attack and such bills as those mentioned by Williams threaten to effectively gut the Ethics Act.

The Alabama House needs a speaker to lead it who believes in a strong ethics law. That's a message Alabamians need to send to their state representatives.

Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at khare@wsfa.com

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