MONTGOMERY, ALA., APRIL 22 -- Democrat Jim Folsom Jr. became Alabama's new governor this afternoon, just hours after a jury convicted Guy Hunt of illegally diverting and spending money raised for his 1987 inauguration. Hunt, the first Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction, was removed from office immediately upon conviction.
Folsom, who had been lieutenant governor, was sworn into office at 2:35 p.m., using the same Bible his father, James E. "Big Jim" Folsom, used when he took the oath as governor in 1947 and again in 1955. Folsom, 43, said he intended to carry out an orderly transition with no disruption of state services, and he announced no immediate changes in the more than 200 state employees who serve at the governor's pleasure.
During Hunt's eight-day trial, the state's campaign and ethics law often appeared to be on trial as much as Hunt himself. In their closing arguments, both sides attempted to make their cases against the broader background of political corruption and political power plays. Defense attorney George Beck asked jurors not to make Hunt a scapegoat for all the ills of government, but Attorney General Jimmy Evans, a Democrat, asked them to "send a message" to all politicians by finding Hunt guilty.
The 10 women and two men on the jury deliberated a little more than two hours Wednesday afternoon and this morning before doing as Evans suggested.
Hunt's supporters in the courtroom wept at the verdict, and the former governor, appearing stunned, hugged several of them as he made his way outside. "We will be fighting to clear this and clear my name," Hunt said after emerging from the court. "This is not my battle now. It's the state of Alabama's battle."
Hunt, 59, faces a possible 10 years in prison and $10,000 fine when he is sentenced May 7. But if the conviction is overturned on appeal before January 1995, Hunt could be restored to the governor's office, which he first won in 1986 as a virtual unknown. He narrowly won reelection in 1990.
While efforts to strengthen campaign and ethics laws met with little success in the current legislative session, the verdict virtually guarantees a lively debate about integrity in government during the 1994 gubernatorial race.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Randall Thomas's instructions to the jurors drew almost as much attention as the verdict itself. He informed them that elected officials cannot spend leftover campaign money on themselves, a practice that has been a subject of controversy here in recent years and that the defense argued is and has been legal in Alabama.
But that was only one part of the verdict. Before even considering whether Hunt was allowed to use $200,000 collected for inaugural balls and other festivities in 1987 to pay off personal loans and buy items ranging from a cow for his farm to riding lawnmowers and a marble shower for his house, jurors had to reach several other conclusions. They had to agree that Hunt had a part in the decision to divert money raised by the tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that put on the inaugural celebration. Jurors had to decide that Hunt knew he was breaking the law. They also had to decide that the money he received was not, as his attorney argued, a repayment for old campaign loans.
Alabama political scientist Natalie Davis said she believes the jurors used a stricter set of guidelines when they voted guilty. "I'm convinced they applied a standard of behavior that probably went beyond the norm," she said. "They said, 'Here is a man who professes a standard of ethics he didn't live up to.' "
Like other political observers here, Davis expects the decision to have a ripple effect in state politics.
"I think it makes a big difference. It makes the issue a statewide issue. We may finally take seriously the issue of ethics," she said. "That may have been Guy Hunt's greatest contribution."
In other states, wholescale revision of ethics and campaign laws rarely has occurred without a legislative scandal. But Melvin Cooper, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said he believes "one governor equals 26 legislators" and that Alabama laws could be reformed in the next legislative session, which begins next January. There is too little time left in the current session for action.
Hunt's conviction stems from an investigation that began in 1991 after the state Ethics Commission asked the attorney general's office to investigate allegations that Hunt, who is a Primitive Baptist preacher, used state planes to travel to preaching engagements where he collected donations. Evans quickly expanded the investigation to delve into Hunt's personal finances.
Three Hunt campaign aides await trial on charges they helped divert the inaugural funds.
Hunt has insisted he did nothing illegal but was a victim of political and religious persecution at the hands of a too-powerful attorney general.
Following the conviction, Evans said he took no professional or personal pride in the outcome. "I hated this case," Evans said, "but the people of Alabama elected me not to duck this case. And I could have ducked it by appointing a special prosecutor and staying out of the fray."