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Ben Little found guilty on two misdemeanor ethics charges, avoiding felony conviction

Ben Little verdict

Anniston City Councilman Ben Little, at right, uses his phone after a jury convicted him on two misdemeanor ethics charges at a courtroom in Birmingham. 

BIRMINGHAM — A Jefferson County jury found Anniston City Councilman Ben Little guilty Thursday on two misdemeanor counts of ethics violations for voting to stop a city-ordered cleanup of cars in his own yard. 

Jurors found Little guilty of recklessly voting on a matter in which he had a conflict of interest and recklessly voting on a matter in which he had a financial interest. Both are misdemeanors.

Jurors could have handed down felony convictions in each if they’d concluded Little intentionally voted in the matter. That would likely have meant his removal from office.

“We’re not disappointed,” prosecutor Scott Lloyd said. “This is a just outcome.”

Little declined comment after the verdict.

The Alabama Ethics Commission earlier this year referred criminal ethics charges against Little to prosecutors in response to a May 1, 2017, vote in which the Little opposed a plan to declare a list of properties to be nuisances. A nuisance declaration typically leads to a city-ordered cleanup of a property at the owner’s expense.

On the May 2017 list were two addresses connected to Little: his South Leighton Avenue home and Refuge Full Gospel Methodist Church on East 22nd Street, where Little is pastor. At both locations, code enforcement officers had found vehicles that hadn’t been moved for months.

The nuisance measure failed in a 2-2 vote with Little voting against it. Prosecutors argued that Little had a financial interest in the vote because he would have had to pay for towing and storage of cars on the property.

Little’s lawyer Donald Stewart declined comment after the verdict, but when asked whether Little would remain on the council, Stewart said yes.

Under state law, anyone convicted of a felony is removed from office at the time of conviction. It’s less clear whether a misdemeanor ethics charge would have a similar effect. Prosecutors said they didn’t know.

“That was outside the purview of my assignment,” Lloyd said.

According to Section 36-2-1 of the Code of Alabama, a conviction for “malfeasance in office” disqualifies anyone from holding public office. Section 36-11-1 states that ‘mayors and intendants of incorporated cities or towns” can be impeached. That code section also suggests that impeachment, if it did happen, would be pursued by a district attorney or the attorney general of the state.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh declined comment, except to say that he wasn’t sure he’d be called to work on an impeachment even if one began.

“I was not the prosecutor in this case,” McVeigh said. 

None of the local lawyers contacted by The Star Thursday would comment publicly when asked whether those laws would apply to Little. 

The trial was held in Birmingham after Calhoun County judges recused themselves from the case. Former Anniston Councilman James Montgomery was among the few who sat in the audience at the trial. He said he believed Little was innocent.

“Who would risk a career, 16 years on the council, for maybe a towing bill that’s $500,” he said.

Circuit Judge Clyde Jones scheduled sentencing for Dec. 12.

Another Anniston councilman faces a similar legal challenge. The Alabama Ethics Commission earlier this month referred charges against Councilman Jay Jenkins in connection with his vote to lease part of The Anniston Star building on McClellan Boulevard for use as a temporary city hall. The old City Hall on Gurnee Avenue is set for demolition to make way for a new federal courthouse.

Jenkins’ wife works in the advertising department at The Star. A grand jury is expected to review the charges against Jenkins.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.