Midway through former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s corruption trial, the state’s most powerful man was hiding in an empty corridor of the Lee County courthouse. Another long day of courtroom drama had come and gone, and the TV news crews had set up their cameras outside the main entrance to catch the defendant and his co-stars as they emerged. But tucked into a nook that used to house public phones stood Billy Canary, a former White House staffer for George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend of Karl Rove, and president and CEO of the mighty Business Council of Alabama (BCA). “I want to wait until the media is gone,” he said to his lawyer.
Canary was named in one of the 23 felony counts against Hubbard, of which the former speaker was found guilty of twelve on June 10. The charge alleged that Canary, a registered lobbyist, had given Hubbard a thing of value, which according to Alabama law is illegal for both the receiver and the giver—a law that Hubbard spearheaded in his first move as speaker in 2010. In other words, though it was Hubbard who would ultimately stand up for the verdict, he wasn’t the only one on trial. With the grand jury still empaneled in Lee County, all of the people named in Hubbard’s indictments—nationally connected political operatives like Canary, and some of Alabama’s wealthiest men—are at risk of prosecution.
When Canary was on the witness stand, he didn’t cower as he did in the hallway, but he answered questions with the evasiveness of a man who has something to hide.
“Did you ever discuss Mike Hubbard’s financial issues in your meetings with the speaker?” prosecutor Matt Hart asked him.
“In the 18 years I knew Mike, we discussed financial issues a lot,” Canary meekly replied.
“Did you help him get work?”
“I helped him subject to the Ethics Commission’s rules,” Canary said. “Mike is a very gifted and talented individual.”
Hart displayed for the jury an email from Hubbard to Will Brooke, who was then chairman of the BCA’s board of directors. “‘I’m going to DC with Billy next week to visit with folks,’” Hart read aloud. Turning to Canary, Hart asked, “What sort of meetings did you facilitate for the defendant Mike Hubbard?”
“I don’t know,” Canary replied.
“Did you talk to each other, or did you go in silence?”
Canary and Hubbard met in 1998, during Hubbard’s first run for the Alabama House. Canary joined the campaign team, bringing his considerable skills and experience in Republican machine politics. He’d been special assistant for intergovernmental affairs in the first Bush administration, when he became good friends with Rove, and after that he served as chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. In the mid-90s, he worked with Rove on the campaigns of several GOP candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court, an effort to stack it with “business friendly” justices who would strike down rulings that went against corporations.
These races loom large in Rove’s legend, and by all accounts served as a sort of testing ground for his unsavory campaign tactics. In 1994, for instance, Rove and Canary used University of Alabama law students to carry out a whisper campaign that Mark Kennedy, an incumbent Democratic justice who had established two charitable foundations for children, was a pedophile. That same year, the two undermined a recount effort in a close race for another seat on the court. Their successful efforts to halt the counting of votes in poor areas of the state would serve as a template for the recount battle in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
For Hubbard’s campaign, Canary provided polling that was key to Hubbard’s victory. And Canary was later part of the core leadership team for the “Republican Handshake with Alabama,” a Hubbard-masterminded campaign to wrest control of both branches of the state legislature from Democrats, who had held them since Reconstruction. Republicans won a super-majority in 2010, and Hubbard ascended to the speakership.
House speaker is the most powerful position in Alabama government. With absolute control over all committee assignments and the placing and advancement of all bills, the speaker can almost singlehandedly determine what will and what won’t become law. “If the speaker doesn’t want something to happen in the House, it doesn’t happen,” Steve French, a former state senator, said on the witness stand in Hubbard’s trial. “And if the speaker does, the chances are much greater. In the range of 90 percent.”
And throughout the five years Hubbard held this power, Canary enjoyed a standing weekly meeting with him in the speaker’s office during legislative sessions, where they shaped the agenda for the entire state.
But they also talked about personal matters—especially the speaker’s financial woes. When he formally assumed the speakership in January 2011, Hubbard lost his private-sector job and was left with a handful of struggling businesses in Auburn, one of which was in arrears on its payroll taxes and on the brink of bankruptcy. He was drawing $60,000 a year from the state for his part-time legislator job—though that is almost 50 percent more than the average household earns annually in Alabama—and his wife Susan brought in about $150,000 from Auburn University, where she is a dean. In bank documents, the Hubbards reported a net worth of $8.8 million, with large holdings of stocks, several commercial properties, a large home in Auburn, a lake house, a vacation farm, and a beach condo in the Florida Panhandle, known by locals as the Redneck Riviera. But it wasn’t enough.
To Canary and others, including wealthy members of Canary’s board of directors, Hubbard whined about his hardships and threatened to step down from office if he couldn’t bring in more money. Facing the possibility of losing unprecedented access to the most powerfully positioned man in the state, Canary reached out to friends at the tops of companies across the state and country, trying to find work for his speaker. He arranged a meeting for Hubbard with CEOs from Alabama, and the two traveled together to Washington, D.C., for meetings with officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The trip wasn’t successful. “They are spooked about me being an elected official,” Hubbard wrote in an email afterward to his mentor, former Governor Bob Riley. Increasingly desperate, the speaker reached out to Will Brooke, chair of the BCA’s executive board, to which Canary reports. In addition to Canary, the BCA employs seven lobbyists, and Brooke, by virtue of his position at the top of the organization, is designated as a principal under Alabama ethics law. Public officials are forbidden from asking principals for anything of value, and principals are forbidden from giving.
“It is amazing, and quite disappointing, that after the sacrifices I’ve made personally to finally get Alabama a pro-business legislature, no one in the business community is willing to work with me professionally to keep me there,” Hubbard wrote to Brooke in March 2012. “Maybe I’m too much of a lightning rod. I suppose, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished.”
“No, Mike, that’s not it,” Brooke replied. “I think that folks are afraid to mess up, on either their or your side of the equation.” He added: “[Y]our leadership is terrific, and everyone with a brain knows it.”
In these emails, Hubbard would apprise Brooke of the work he was doing to advance the BCA’s annual legislative agenda, which they call the “Blueprint for Success.” He also bragged about the work he did on Brooke’s pet issues: Brooke’s wife Maggie serves on the board of Alabama Boys and Girls Clubs, which receives federal welfare funds through the state. During Hubbard’s personal financial crisis, House Republicans moved to cut the private charity’s funds, and Hubbard told Brooke he was doing everything he could to make sure state tax dollars continued supporting Maggie’s favored charity. “I don’t want to get on Maggie’s bad side!” he wrote.
Brooke testified at Hubbard’s trial that he considered the speaker’s situation “to be a real problem.” In addition to the possibility of losing a speaker who met weekly with the BCA’s top man, Brooke feared that a struggling Hubbard might fall into a scandal. “That’s always a risk,” he testified. “There has been a pattern in the past with speakers getting influenced by businesses.”
Yet he chose to prepare for Hubbard, at no cost, an investment plan to turn around his failing printing business, a service that’s usually worth tens of thousands of dollars. And as a senior vice president at Harbert Management Corporation, an investment firm overseeing $4 billion in a variety of funds, Brooke had the means to participate in the investment plan as well. In October 2012, he wired Hubbard $150,000.
Four other businessmen who qualified as principals under the Alabama ethics law chipped in as well, including Jimmy Rane, the president and CEO of Great Southern Lumber. Just days before his testimony in Hubbard’s trial, Rane was named the state’s richest man by Forbes. But he’s perhaps better known as the Yella Fella, mascot of his own company and star of a western melodrama series on YouTube. In a trial with as many outsize characters as a Southern gothic tale, Rane stood out as the most charismatic and likable.
“You didn’t wear your hat,” prosecutor Hart chided him after he took the witness stand.
“No, but I got my boots on,” he said.
Hart asked Rane if he hires lobbyists, and is thus a principal, and Rane answered in the affirmative. “My only interests are good government, Auburn University, Marion Military Institute, and a healthy business environment,” he explained.
Hart asked him about the military school, and Rane said he’d been a student there many years ago. “I was 15 years old and drinking beer and trying to marry a girl and flunking geometry and my daddy said, ‘Boy have I got something for you,’” he said. “If not for that, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
But in the early 2000s, the school fell into financial trouble, and the Alabama legislature moved to have it added to the state’s community college system. Part of the deal called for the state to pay off the school’s debt, but the government didn’t follow through on its promise. So after Hubbard became speaker, Rane talked with his powerful friend about it, and shortly thereafter money was siphoned from another part of the state’s meager budget toward the Yella Fella’s alma mater.
Hart asked Rane if he’d invested $150,000 in Hubbard’s business, Craftmaster Printing. Rane nodded, saying he’d first heard of the investment plan from Canary, who urged him to take part.
“Mike Hubbard is my friend,” Rane said. “I believe in him, and yes, I have supported him.”
He told the jury he first met Hubbard long before he ever got into politics, “when he was a fresh-faced kid” in his first job out of college, working public relations for Auburn University’s athletic department. “I’ve known Mike Hubbard since 1984 and our relationship is very pure,” he said. “When I look at him, I’m not seeing the speaker of the House. I’m seeing my friend.”
The testimony lined up with the primary argument Hubbard’s lawyers offered in his defense—that the state’s ethics law contains an exclusion for gifts and favors exchanged among friends. But Rane was the only one who seemed to meet the law’s criteria that such friendships pre-date the friends’ public lives.
“I would trust him with my children and my checkbook, I would,” Rane told the jury.
The trial drew regular folks from across Lee County and beyond, with new faces coming and going each day: college students, retirees, workers playing hooky for an afternoon. But never were there more people in attendance than on Thursday, June 9, the second day of testimony by Mike Hubbard himself.
After the prosecution rested its case, the defense hinted that it would bring in character witnesses, including Bo Jackson; Hubbard had worked on the athlete’s successful campaign for the Heisman Trophy in 1985. But when court resumed after a long lunch break on June 8, an audible gasp rose from the gallery when the defense called the defendant to the stand.
It was a risky gamble. Hart, head of the state attorney general’s white-collar crime division, is legendarily ruthless. Before Hubbard’s case made it to trial, the defendant tried many times and many ways to get it thrown out—even going so far as to beg for intervention by the Obama administration, which Hubbard and his fellow Republicans had held up as enemy number one when they seized power in the Yellowhammer State. The Hubbard team’s main argument was that Hart was a rogue and malicious prosecutor. In one pre-trial hearing, a witness testified that Hart had said he would drag Hubbard into court, “tie a noose” around his neck, and tighten it.
Now the two would face off for all the world to see. The courtroom filled to capacity for Hubbard’s second day of testimony, with folks coming from across Lee County and beyond to watch the spectacle of a powerful man being grilled by the law.
Hart went straight at Hubbard’s strongest argument, calling into question his friendship with former Governor Riley. Riley and Hubbard are so close that Hubbard named his youngest son Riley.
Hart read aloud damning emails between the two. One featured Riley, a registered lobbyist and owner of a lobbying firm, asking Hubbard to get one of his clients an opportunity to speak before the entire Alabama House of Representatives. “And here you reply,” Hart said to Hubbard, “‘I really need to get some of their printing business.’ So you’re asking your friend, the lobbyist, for business from one of his clients, yes or no?”
“I’m asking my friend, Bob Riley,” Hubbard replied.
“He’s a lobbyist and you’re speaker of the House?” Hart said.
“He’s Bob Riley.”
“He’s a lobbyist, right?”
“He’s a friend.”
“He’s also a lobbyist, yes or no?”
“And so you tell your lobbyist friend, ‘I really need to get some of their printing business,’ yes or no for the jury?”
“I said that to my friend, Bob Riley, yes sir.”
On and on like this it went, in email after email, for an hour and a half, with Hart forcefully tagging every quote with, “your friend, the lobbyist,” or “Bob Riley, the lobbyist governor,” or “your lobbyist governor friend.”
“Here you write to your friend, the lobbyist, of one of his clients: ‘I told him I thought it was a good move, that you and I are close,’” Hart said acidly. “That’s good for that lobbyist, isn’t it? That’s good for your friend the lobbyist governor, when you tell his client that you and he are tight, tell the jury, yes or no?”
The members of the jury were in deliberations for a little less than seven hours. Their 12 guilty verdicts were for three different schemes: voting on legislation benefiting American Pharmacies Cooperative, Inc., a registered principal with which Hubbard had a consulting contract; using state resources to do work for, and lobbying state officials on behalf of, Bobby Abrams, owner of CV Holdings, who was paying the speaker $10,000 a month; and receiving contracts and investments from principals, including Canary’s boss, Will Brooke, and Hubbard’s longtime friend, Jimmy Rane.
As for Canary—who was instrumental in the schemes that took the speaker down and now threaten to ensnare four top leaders in the very business community for which the BCA advocates—the charge in which he was named came back not guilty. (Same for former Governor Riley.)
It was friendship and stinginess that came through for Alabama’s most powerful man. Unlike Rane and Brooke, Canary never gave Hubbard anything of real value. Under cross-examination, he said of the former speaker, “I love him like a brother.” The two pals had even gone to a ZZ Top concert together, Canary testified, adding sheepishly: “I’m embarrassed to admit that.”
Now Canary, who didn’t have the courage to face the cameras after his day in court, is free to craft the BCA’s annual “Blueprint for Success,” and continue lobbying for the pro-business agenda that has made Alabama one of the worst-run states in the union. And his “brother” is out on $160,000 bond, awaiting his sentencing hearing scheduled for July 8.
This series began with a question: “Is Mike Hubbard the most corrupt politician in America?”
Three weeks of trial and twelve guilty verdicts later, the answer is no.
He’s not even the most corrupt figure in the state.