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Little’s next steps

Following councilman’s conviction, path forward uncertain

Ben Little

Ben Little

Anniston City Councilman Ben Little was convicted Thursday on two counts of violating state ethics law – but where he’s headed next, politically, is anybody’s guess. 

Little said he intends to announce his plans at a press conference at Anniston’s multimodal center Tuesday. And it’s quite possible he’ll be back at the dais when the council meets again later this month.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m in office,” Little said Friday. 

A Jefferson County jury found Little guilty of recklessly voting on a matter in which he had a conflict of interest and a matter in which he had a financial interest. The verdict, in essence, means Little was reckless in his 2017 vote against a nuisance declaration that came before the council. Had the declaration passed, it’s possible Little would have had to pay for towing and storage of vehicles parked at his Leighton Avenue home. Instead, the measure failed 2-2. 

Little was initially charged with casting that vote intentionally – a felony charge. State law declares anyone convicted of a felony unqualified for office at the moment they’re convicted. 

The effect of a misdemeanor ethics conviction, however, is less clear. Several lawyers contacted by The Star declined to comment on the case, sometimes citing a lack of precedent for the situation. 

“At this time I really have no idea what effect his conviction would have on his future on the council,” said Mayor Jack Draper. 

Misdemeanor charges like Little’s have been somewhat common in Alabama corruption cases in the past decade. In 2014, lawmaker Greg Wren entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge after trying to add language to a state budget that would have benefited a pharmacy cooperative he did business with. Gov. Robert Bentley pleaded guilty in 2017 to misdemeanor campaign finance charges.

Both men left office as a result of their corruption trials – but Bentley stepped down as a result of a plea deal, and Wren resigned from office shortly after his indictment. It’s not clear if there’s any recent example of an official being convicted of a misdemeanor ethics charge without stepping down. 

Even Little himself doesn’t provide a precedent. A judge ordered Little out of office in 2012, after finding him guilty of exceeding his authority under the Anniston Council-Manager Act. Still, that act, which lays out the foundations of Anniston government, explicitly calls for disqualification of council members who violate the act. 

Another portion of state law, 36-2-1 of the Code of Alabama, states that a person is disqualified from office if “convicted of malfeasance in office” without saying whether “malfeasance” applies to both felony and misdemeanor charges or whether a “reckless” vote would amount to malfeasance. 

It’s also unclear whether Little intends to appeal his conviction, something that might forestall any ramifications the conviction might have for his status as a council member. Little’s lawyer, Donald Stewart, declined comment when asked Thursday about a possible appeal.

City offices are up for reelection next year, and Little in recent months has sent mixed signals about his plans for the coming term. Already retired from the Army, he has spoken about possibly retiring from politics. At times —  sometimes in the same conversation — he has said he could win a mayoral race if he tried. 

On Friday, Little declined to comment on anything about the trial, except to compliment the judge, jury and staff of the courthouse where he was tried. 

“I want to thank them,” Little said. “It could have been a whole lot worse.”

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