published Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Alabama Ex-Sen. Lowell Barron denies pocketing donations

FORT PAYNE, Ala. — Former powerhouse state Sen. Lowell Barron accused prosecutors of a witch hunt after he was indicted Tuesday on ethics and campaign law violations.

Barron, a Democrat who represented Northeast Alabama for 28 years, was charged with funneling $58,000 in campaign funds to campaign aide Rhonda Jill Johnson, along with a 2007 Toyota Camry.

State Attorney General Luther Strange said in a prepared statement that both Barron and Johnson were indicted by a DeKalb County grand jury on six counts of violating the state's ethics law and the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

A special prosecution division presented evidence to the grand jury that issued the indictments on April 19.

Four days later, on the DeKalb County Courthouse steps and surrounded by about 20 family members and friends, Barron denied any wrongdoing. With a cane in hand and a neck brace after a November 2012 tractor accident, Barron also accused Strange of playing politics.

"I am saddened to stand here before you today, the victim of a vicious witch hunt by Luther Strange from Montgomery," he said. "If it had taken my life during my injury, it would not have been worse than Luther Strange trying to take my good name."

The indictments, which were delivered to Barron on Monday -- his 71st birthday -- accuse him and Johnson of converting a $50,000, a $6,000 and a $2,000 check from the Senate campaign account to Johnson's account.

Barron's attorney Joe Espy said Barron had reported the campaign contributions. He questioned why it took federal prosecutors more than two years and presentations of evidence to four grand juries before the former senator was indicted.

"Why did it take 2 1/2 years?" Espy asked. "I've never seen a case like this."

Barron, former chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, is known for his influence and for a video that went viral capturing Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Arley, punching Barron on the head on the Senate floor in 2007.

Before Barron lost his re-election bid to newcomer Republican Shadrack McGill, he pulled in more than a million dollars in 2010 in campaign contributions.

In the close-knit community surrounding Fort Payne, locals seemed torn over whether the senator had done what he was accused of.

Roger Carroll, a Rainsville native who has known Barron since he was mayor of Fyffe in 1968, said he believes Barron didn't do anything wrong.

"There's rumors that he's going to run again," Carroll said. "I think this is just they're going to make sure [he doesn't run]."

Barron's attorney said a lot of people believe Barron was going to try to qualify for another Senate run, and this was a way to keep him out of the race. But when Espy was asked if Barron planned to qualify, he said the former senator couldn't consider running right now.

Meanwhile, at least one opponent of the former senator said he believes the charges.

"I think every bit of it is true," said Sylvania Councilman Tony Goolesby, who was found not guilty on disorderly conduct charges in 2012 after a confrontation with Barron at a festival.

If convicted, Baron and Johnson each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $30,000 for each of the six counts.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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