Alabama’s Primitive Baptist governor has been charged with the theft of $200,000 following an investigation prompted by his use of a state airplane to fly to out-of-state preaching engagements.

Gov. Guy Hunt, a two-term Republican who serves two congregations as part-time pastor, has denied charges that he looted a private fund established to pay for his 1987 inauguration.

“I have never stolen anything in my entire life,” Hunt said in a formal statement following the indictment. “I will fight this indictment and I will win.” Hunt’s troubles began when the Alabama Ethics Commission ruled he may have violated a state ethics law by accepting almost $10,000 in “love offerings” during 17 trips taken aboard his official plane. The law prohibits public officials from using their positions for personal, financial gain.

Alabama Attorney General Jimmy Evans, a Democrat, said his office’s investigation of that case uncovered evidence the governor had “plundered” his inaugural fund. A state grand jury returned the indictment after Evans presented the evidence.

After news media first reported the preaching trips, but before the Ethics Commission issued its ruling, Hunt wrote two checks to the state equaling the amount he received in offerings. However, he denied his accepting the money had violated the law.

Christian response mixed

Across the state, Christian response to the indictment has been mixed.

Some, especially Primitive Baptists, have denounced the charges as politically motivated. On the Sunday following the indictment, Hunt preached at a Primitive Baptist church in Birmingham and was warmly received.

Nevertheless, others in this Bible Belt state have hesitated to rally to the governor’s side, perhaps due to some unusual coincidences related to the case:

• The foreman of the grand jury that indicted Hunt is a former pastor who serves as director of evangelism for the state’s 1.1 million Southern Baptists. Another jury member is pastor of the largest Presbyterian church in the capital city of Montgomery.

• The attorney general who pursued the investigation was elected in 1990 with the support of several profamily groups. As a district attorney, he had prosecuted and shut down a New York television movie channel that was broadcasting X-rated films into Alabama via satellite.

• The Alabama Ethics Commission, which handled the initial complaint and referred the case to the attorney general, is headed by a Southern Baptist deacon who has written for denominational publications.

If Hunt is convicted of theft, state law requires him to be removed from office upon sentencing. But even if he is not convicted, he may not be out of trouble. Attorney General Evans said the grand jury asked to remain impaneled so that it may continue deliberating the legality of his preaching trips.

By David Reid in Montgomery, Alabama.

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