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Trial approaches for former Alabama Senate leader

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FORT PAYNE, Ala. — A prosecutor said Friday he will show that former Alabama Senate leader Lowell Barron gave $58,000 in campaign funds to campaign aide Rhonda Jill Johnson to help her pay a debt to him and a credit card company.

Barron's defense attorney said Barron paid Johnson for the work she did, and she used it to pay bills like everyone else does with a paycheck.

For the prosecution to convict Barron and Johnson, "they've got to prove the work she did is not worth a dime," defense attorney Joe Espy said in a court hearing.

Espy and Assistant Attorney General Bill Lisenby laid out their cases in a hearing in preparation for the trial of Barron and Johnson, which is scheduled to start April 14 in Fort Payne.

State Attorney General Luther's staff got a DeKalb County grand jury to indict Barron and Johnson last year on charges accusing them of diverting $58,000 from Barron's 2010 campaign account and a campaign car for Johnson's personal use. The two have pleaded not guilty.

Barron, a 72-year-old Democrat from Fyffe, served 28 years in the Senate and held leadership positions, including president pro tem and Rules Committee chairman, before losing in 2010. Johnson, 48, of Scottsboro, served on his Senate staff and then on his campaign staff.

State law allows campaign donations to be used for ordinary campaign expenditures and expenses of holding a public office.

Barron loaned Johnson $100,000 to help her buy a house in 2008. Then in 2009, he gave her $2,000 from his campaign account, which she used to pay part of her debt to him, Lisenby said.

Then during the campaign in 2010, he wrote her a $6,000 check from the campaign and a $6,800 personal check, which she used to pay a $12,400 credit card bill, Lisenby said.

After losing in November 2010, Barron gave her $50,000 from his campaign account, which she used to finish paying her debt to him, Lisenby said.

"That is not going to be an ordinary or necessary expenditure" for a campaign, he told the judge.

Barron's lawyers argued that it was a bonus for her hard work, and that Barron's campaign reported all the payments on the campaign finance reports he filed with the secretary of state.

Barron's defense has subpoenaed the attorney general to testify in the trial. Espy said Strange's campaign finance records show Strange paid campaign aide Jessica Garrison $85,000 after his 2010 campaign, and they want to show that bonuses after a campaign are common in Alabama.

The attorney general's office is seeking to block Strange's testimony. Lisenby said Barron's lawyers know they can't call Strange as a witness, but are making an issue of it to try to influence potential jurors in the case.

Circuit Judge Randall Cole said he will rule later on the issue. He will also rule later on whether prosecutors can use at trial the lengthy testimony that Johnson gave to a DeKalb County grand jury before being indicted. "Our plan is to offer all of the statement — all 500 pages," Lisenby said.

Defense attorney Ben Espy, son of Joe Epsy, argued that the statement can't be used in a joint trial because it might unfairly influence Barron's case.

Attorneys expect testimony in the trial to last about two weeks.

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