published Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

AL appeals court judges step aside from Barron case

By PHILLIP RAWLS

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore will have to pick someone to help decide how far the state attorney general's office can go in exploring the relationship between a former state senator and campaign aide charged with misusing campaign funds.

Three of the five members of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals have stepped aside from hearing an appeal filed by Attorney General Luther Strange's staff.

The attorney general's staffer wants the appeals court to overturn a ruling by Circuit Judge Randall Cole. He ruled prosecutors could present evidence of a personal relationship between former Sen. Lowell Barron and campaign aide Jill Johnson, but they couldn't present evidence of a romantic relationship during a criminal trial for the two.

Court Clerk Scott Mitchell notified the Republican chief justice on Monday that he will need to appoint at least one fill-in judge because three judges are needed to decide an appeal. Presiding Judge Mary Windom, Judge Lilies Burke and Judge Michael Joiner recused themselves, but none of the Republican judges gave a reason for leaving the case of the former Democratic senator. Windom's husband, former Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, sparred frequently with Barron when he was a leader of Democrats in the Senate.

Barron had no immediate comment Monday, spokesman Collier Craft said

A DeKalb County grand jury indicted Barron and Johnson last year on ethics and campaign finance charges, accusing them of misusing $58,000 in campaign donations to Barron's unsuccessful re-election bid in 2010.

A trial initially scheduled to open April 14 has been delayed while the attorney general's staff appealed the judge's ruling about not being able to present evidence of a romantic relationship. Prosecutors said that would be fatal to their case because they needed it to show motive and intent. Defense attorneys argued that the relationship was strictly professional.

Late last week, the prosecution filed a petition with the Court of Criminal Appeals asking it to consider more issues.

In a 27-page petition, the attorney general's staff said Cole ruled incorrectly that Barron's lawyers could introduce evidence of how other candidates customarily spend their campaign funds, including the attorney general.

The charges accuse Barron of giving a $50,000 bonus to Johnson after the election defeat, and then Johnson using the $50,000 to pay off the balance on a $100,000 interest-free home loan Barron had given her in 2008. Prosecutors contend that helped Johnson clear up her debt to Barron when she no longer had a job to provide income to pay her bills.

Barron has said publicly that the $50,000 was no different than the $85,000 in bonuses that Strange gave a campaign aide after his win in 2010.

But the attorney general's staff said, "Barron has no evidence, however, that any candidate including General Strange, laundered money through their campaign workers (like Barron did) under the pretext of a 'bonus' or a 'severance.' General Strange never paid a campaign worker who then paid the same money back to him in a sham transaction."

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