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Testimony: Lee County DA paid settlement following sex discrimination claim

Updated: Dec. 3, 2020 at 8:51 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes is suspended from his elected position while awaiting trial on five felony ethics counts, one count of perjury and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. A Lee County investigative grand jury handed down the indictment in early November.

A day after Hughes was booked on the felony counts, he was charged with perjury in Montgomery County for reportedly giving false statements to the Alabama Ethics Commission.

Thursday, Hughes appeared before a Montgomery district judge for a preliminary hearing on the perjury count. Following a lengthy, and at times contentious hearing, Judge Pamela Higgins found probable cause Hughes committed perjury and bound the case over for grand jury consideration.

The perjury charge stems from statements Hughes made to the Alabama Ethics Commission in April 2019 regarding a sexual discrimination claim. In an effort to show Hughes lied to the Commission under oath, Assistant Attorney General Jasper Roberts presented evidence that Hughes was aware of a formal EEOC complaint filed by a former prosecutor and that he used public money to litigate a settlement.

Roberts began making his case by introducing a partial transcript from the April 1, 2019 Ethics Commission meeting. According to the transcript, Commissioner John Plunk asked Hughes, “What can you tell us about the EEOC complaint.” Hughes said he wasn’t sure what they wanted to know, stating he terminated an employee and received a letter about potential action. Plunk then asked, “Were the allegations that the employee made against you or someone on your staff while you’ve been in office?”

Hughes responded, “There were no formal allegations made. There were -- it was just a general -- I mean, there were discussions had about -- you know, I’m not sure what I can say or can’t say,” Hughes said, referencing a confidentiality agreement attached to a settlement involving this issue.

Plunk followed up with “Was there racism, sex discrimination?” Hughes stated, “No.”

Other state exhibits included a letter Hughes received from a Birmingham law firm stating it was pursing a Title XII civil rights complaint against Hughes on behalf of the former employee. An EEOC complaint was also introduced, which outlined allegations of sexual discrimination. The former prosecutor cited in the complaint that Hughes made unwanted sexual advances by way of inappropriate comments, flirting and while drinking at the office after hours.

“I was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and then I was forced to resign, and thus, constructively discharged because of my sex,” the former prosecutor stated in the complaint.

Roberts also presented a copy of a billing statement from the attorneys Hughes hired to litigate the settlement. The billable entries indicate the attorneys discussed the matter with Hughes from the time they were hired in July 2018 through August 2018, when the issue was settled outside court. Roberts noted the documents further proved Hughes was aware of the allegations sexual discrimination.

The state also produced a copy of the settlement, which was also signed by Hughes’ wife and the former prosecutor’s husband, which removed them from any future liability and enforced a confidentiality agreement.

The final exhibit was a copy of the $14,000 check from the district attorney’s fund to cover the legal expenses.

Testimony conveyed Hughes paid $45,000 to settle the issue, despite alleging no wrongdoing.

Hughes attorney, Richard White, suggested the ethics commission transcript was “very subjective”, drawing attention to the fact that his client was correct in saying there was no formal complaint filed in terms of a lawsuit. As for what Hughes didn’t say, White said his client was bound by the settlement.

“At the end of the day, he couldn’t talk about the confidentially agreement and the payoffs -- he couldn’t talk about that, by court order,” White argued.

It’s unclear when this case could go before a Montgomery County grand jury. Perjury is a class C felony in Alabama.

Hughes is currently charged with an ethics violation in Lee County for using public funds to litigate the settlement.

Due to the indictment, it’s a statutory requirement that Hughes be suspended from his position until his case is adjudicated. A judge appointed a longtime prosecutor from the office to serve as acting district attorney.

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