Ben Little

Councilman Ben Little at the 2016 swearing-in ceremony for the newly elected Anniston City Council. Little on Wednesday was found to have violated state ethics laws by the Alabama Ethics Commission. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/file)

Calhoun County’s circuit judges have recused themselves one by one from Anniston Councilman Ben Little’s ethics case since March, and now a Jefferson County judge will sit on the bench in their place.

Circuit Judge Clyde Jones was appointed April 30 by the Alabama Supreme Court to preside over Little’s case, in which the councilman is charged with voting illegally in May 2017 on a matter in which he had a personal financial interest. Jones has been a criminal circuit court judge since 2002, according to his Alabama court system biography. His appointment marks the latest in a series of court actions involving Little in which the complete roster of local judges have recused themselves.

Brian Howell, presiding circuit judge of Calhoun County, said it’s typical for local judges to recuse themselves from court matters involving local elected officials. He said the desire to avoid an appearance of impropriety motivates the majority of recusals. Attorneys and parties to cases can also formally request that judges recuse themselves if they believe a conflict of interest exists.

“I’ve handled court cases in other counties where there may have been elected officials,” Howell said by phone Friday. “I had a case out of Blount County where the DA and coroner had some issues, and because of that (the judges) all recused. It’s pretty standard.”

He said that in the event of all circuit judges recusing themselves, his office sends a request to the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts to appoint a judge.

Howell and judges Bud Turner and Debra Jones recused themselves from Little’s case on March 15, 18 and 25, respectively, though Jones filed a second order on April 17. Attempts to reach Jones for clarification on the need for a second order Friday were unsuccessful. Howell said that Judge Shannon Page was never assigned to the case because Page presides over non-juried cases. Criminal cases, like Little’s, would include a jury trial unless the defendant waives that right, Howell explained.

A Calhoun County grand jury indicted Little on Jan. 22 on charges of knowingly voting against Anniston nuisance abatements that would affect property he owned, and property owned by the church he pastors. If the abatements had passed, Little might have had to pay the city for work to clean up his property. The indictment followed an Alabama Ethics Commission decision in June 2018 that Little had violated state ethics laws. Little pleaded not guilty to the charges in March.

On Friday, Little said by phone that “the truth will speak for itself” and that it’s “plain as day what took place.” He declined to comment on the recusals. He added that he was appreciative of judges in the county.

“I think people can see what’s going on,” Little added, though he declined to elaborate.

Examples of cases involving Little in which the full roster of circuit court judges chose to recuse date back to at least 2012.

John Rochester, a Clay County circuit court judge, handled a 2016 challenge to Little’s election that year filed by Seyram Selase, the incumbent Ward 3 councilman Little defeated. Rochester found in Little’s favor over alleged “misconduct, fraud or corruption” by election officials at a polling place in September last year. Little’s attorney, Donald Stewart, requested in 2017 that Rochester recuse himself from the investigation. Stewart’s filing cited an ethics investigation performed by Rochester, looking into alleged “improper” bonuses to an Anniston museum staffer, which Stewart claimed created the appearance of impropriety. Stewart argued that the membership of two Anniston Star executives, Josephine Ayers and Robert Jackson, on the board contributed to that appearance because of editorials that had criticized Little.

Arthur Hanes Jr. of Jefferson County presided over a lawsuit brought by Little and former Anniston mayoral candidate Ralph Bradford in 2015. The two represented themselves in the case, in which they alleged that a city stormwater fee totaling $10 per year to each resident was illegal. The litigation failed, as did its appeal. Little and Bradford alleged racial bias was the cause of that failure.

Thomas Young Jr. of Tallapoosa County was assigned in 2012 to an appeal from an earlier case, in which Little was found guilty by a district court of overreaching his authority as a council member when he gave direct orders to a city employee, a misdemeanor. The verdict carried with it removal from office, though it came just three days before Little was due to leave office, having been defeated by Selase in a reelection bid. Young eventually dismissed the appeal.

John Thomason, a former circuit judge, considered recusing himself from a 2012 case at the request of Little’s attorney. Thomason recused himself from another case in which Little was a plaintiff in 2010.

“The buffonish Mr. Little wants to defame me and other local Circuit Judges who received campaign contributions from a donor he does not like,” Thomason wrote in a court filing at the time.

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.