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Ethics Commission: Not Subject to Ethics Laws

Bill Britt



By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Here’s a little-known fact: The Alabama Ethics Commission is not governed by the laws it is charged with enforcing.

That was made abundantly clear when Commissioner Judge Charles Price voted with a conflict of interest at an Oct. 5th Commission meeting. The conflict arose when he voted yes on an Advisory Opinion that permitted the City of Montgomery to give money to the local Chamber of Commerce. Price, a retired Montgomery Circuit Judge, is a board member of the chamber and will shortly become its president.


Commission Chair Judge Jerry Fielding and Commissioner James Jerry Wood both cautioned Price on his conflict, as did the Commission’s executive director Tom Albritton. Price acknowledged that his vote might present a conflict, but said he had his reasons for voting for the Advisory Opinion, allowing city funds to the Chamber. He did not, however, explain his reasons to the commission.

The Commission denied the opinion in a 2 to 3 vote. Price voted to approve it as did vice-chair Frank C. “Butch” Ellis, Jr.

Price did not commit a felony, nor any crime, because the Ethics Commission falls outside the scope of “Public Officials” or “Employees” under the State Ethics Code.

The law defines a Public Official as:

“Any person elected to public office, whether or not that person has taken office, by the vote of the people at state, county, or municipal level of government or their instrumentalities, including governmental corporations, and any person appointed to a position at the state, county, or municipal level of government or their instrumentalities, including governmental corporations. For purposes of this chapter, a public official includes the chairs and vice-chairs or the equivalent offices of each state political party as defined in Section 17-13-40.”

The code stipulates that a Public Employee is:

“Any person employed at the state, county, or municipal level of government or their instrumentalities… For purposes of this chapter, a public employee does not include a person employed on a part-time basis whose employment is limited to providing professional services other than lobbying, the compensation for which constitutes less than 50 percent of the part-time employee’s income.”

As with the Commission, this exception extends to the governing boards of universities and the Public Service Commission.

Was the omission of such authoritative bodies an unexpected error, or was it omitted by design? A question now left to the imagination of the public.

The Ethics Laws, passed in a 2010 Special Legislative Session, were crafted to allow exceptions for some and restrictions on others engaging in similar actions. The 2010 laws were designed by Gov. Bob Riley, along with Speaker Mike Hubbard and Business Council of Alabama (BCA) Chief Billy Canary for their personal advantage, while placing restraints on others to do the same. A good example is BCA’s ability to hold lavish parties while denying other lobbying groups from holding a smaller events.

There is a lot of talk about reforming the State’s Ethics Code. Some want to soften it so lawmakers can escape the fate of former Speaker Hubbard, who currently awaits his jailer. Lobbyists, without the size and influence of the BCA, believe they should be able to take a client to dinner or host a party without violating the law.

In this case, however, loopholes in the Ethics Code permit behavior by some to go unchecked while others are held accountable for their actions. Whether by design, or happenstance, many gaps in the laws are only discovered after the fact.


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Don’t look away just yet, HB317 is still around

Chip Brownlee



House Bill 317, a controversial piece of legislation that has received pushback from both sides of the aisle and prompted threats of a filibuster, never made it to the Senate floor on Thursday, raising questions about whether the bill was still alive.

It is.

Even though lawmakers would need to raise to get the bill through both chambers by the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline next week, HB317 is still in the works.


Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, who’s carrying the legislation in the Senate, had planned for HB317 to be on the floor Thursday, but instead, senators spent much of the day crafting a substitute in an effort to appease other objecting senators, according to Marsh.

It isn’t clear what’s in the substitute, but senators will continue working over the weekend and could bring the legislation back to the floor next Tuesday when lawmakers will return for what is expected to be the final week of the session.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, threatened to filibuster the bill Thursday. Combined with several other Democrats and Republicans who threatened the same — and others in the Republican caucus who said they wouldn’t vote for cloture — the effort got the bill pulled from the special order calendar.

Brewbaker said he is now part negotiations on the substitute, but wouldn’t be part of writing it.

“I told them I wasn’t going to help write it, because if you help write the sub you’re supposed to vote for it,” Brewbaker said.

The Montgomery Republican said the bill’s proponents need to get back to the original intent of the bill, which was to carve out a narrow exception for a very narrow range of people — professional site selectors — who are involved in economic development. Those individuals wouldn’t need to register as lobbyists, the bill would clarify.

Instead, the bill morphed into a vast one intended to enhance the state’s ability to perform economic development. By the same token, the bill also expanded to include provisions that exempt any “full-time” or “less-than-full-time” person classified as an “economic development professional” from having to register as a lobbyist, thus exempting them from the ethics law as well.

Instead of creating a small class of fewer than 50 people, the current version of the bill creates a broad class of individuals exempt from the ethics law who do — or say they do — pretty much any economic development.

Had the bill remained a narrowly drawn exception for only professional site selectors, Brewbaker said “everyone” would have supported it.

“Nobody has any problem with that,” Brewbaker said. “Everybody understands why it needs to be done, and, in fact, up until a few months ago, they didn’t have to register as lobbyists. And under the law, to be honest with you, the only reason there’s any confusion now is because the Ethics Commission won’t do its job and render a decision.”

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said he doesn’t support the bill because he has a general opposition economic development and incentives, which this bill would potentially bolster through allowing for bonds for industrial development and site preparation.

“I believe in free enterprise, and I don’t believe in subsidy and incentives,” Pittman said. “I think we need an overall good environment for businesses and individuals to succeed based on their effort and merit.”

Pittman said he also had concerns about transparency in the bill — what are the costs of the projects and what are the returns on what the Legislature is giving away.

“That’s oftentimes hard to determine on these projects,” Pittman said.

While the bill would clarify that economic development professionals are not lobbyists, Pittman said inherently some of what they do is lobbying.

“Part of what they do is to lobby, to advocate for legislation and to advocate for money in addition to the already approved incentives,” Pittman said. “That’s the question on how to create transparency but at the same time, there is some confidentiality in this process.”

The bill would allow for some economic development negotiations confidential in order to protect the projects.

“Some of that need is real but some of it is an opportunity for mischief,” Pittman said.

There is also concern the bill would allow lawmakers to skirt the revolving door statutes in the state’s ethics laws, which prevent lawmakers from registering as lobbyists for two years.

Pittman said he was less concerned about that provision because the Senate has a rule that prevents former lawmakers from lobbying for two years.

“You’re still an ex-senator,” Pittman said. “I think that’s the misunderstanding on the bill is that you can’t just wear different hats. Everything you’re involved in applies.”

Pittman has already been working on the bill, getting an amendment passed Wednesday that would allow for incentives to be tracked once they’re claimed. He said he will need to see what is in the substitute next week before he decides whether to support the bill.

“I still have serious concerns about the bill, and I’m going to withhold judgment until I see the final substitute,” Pittman said.

Brewbaker said if the leadership insists on keeping all of the extra language in the bill, he won’t feel support it and will likely threaten another filibuster on Tuesday — an act that could potentially derail the rest of the session if he’s joined be enough of his colleagues.

“It’s not just me, there’s a ton of opposition,” Brewbaker said. “They don’t have a chance unless they significantly alter that bill.”


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“Zombie Bill” thought dead, juvenile justice reform bill resurfaces in Alabama Senate

Chip Brownlee



The Senate Judiciary Committee meets on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (Chandler Walker/APR)

Previously thought to be dead for this legislative session, a massive rewrite of Alabama’s juvenile justice statutes surfaced in the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, again raising the possibility that the legislation may make it into the law books this year.

The House passed the legislation last week.

“For a while there this bill has been alive and dead, then brought back to life and dead again. It’s come back and forth, and it has been called the Zombie Bill,” Ward said. “Just two days ago we were told the bill was dead for the session. Forty-eight hours later, we’re told it’s still in play.”


The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, was the result of a Juvenile Justice Task Force created by Gov. Kay Ivey. Hill, a retired judge in St. Clair County, and other members of the task force, worked for months to create a package to reform provisions in Alabama’s law that proponents of the bill say unfairly treats minors.

HB225 would expand early intervention programs and would cut back on the number of minors sent to youth detention facilities. Every minor that would enter the juvenile courts would need a risk and needs determination under the bill.

“This is something that is a year-long work in progress,” Hill said. “The juvenile justice acts in this state have not been looked at in 10 years.”

Hill said 60 percent of children who are sent to the Department of Youth Services detention facilities are low-level offenders convicted of Class C or D misdemeanors.

“The kids we send to DYS, oftentimes, we would not send to prison if they were 25 years old,” Hill said.

Proponents say that the bill would allow for funds saved by reduced incarceration of children to be used for local community intervention programs.

“We can either stick with the status quo, which some will do, or we can try to make some positive changes going forward,” Ward said.

The bill is more than 80 pages long, and some have accused Ward, Hill and Democratic Sen. Vivian Figures of trying to shove through a bill without proper vetting.

“This is a big bill, that’s why it took 15 months to work on with more than 16 different stakeholders across the state,” Ward said. “Do we have more work to do? I think we do, but we’ve got to put our nose to the ground and start to do it.”

Four amendments were added to the bill Thursday. All of them were largely technical amendments. The biggest amendment added Thursday was a compromise between DYS and county commissions on how to pay for the cost of transferring youth offenders.

Ward said the bill is still a work in progress, but would go a long way in reducing the number of incarcerated youth offenders.

“The big part of it is, the cost of those who you won’t be locking up — it costs us about $160,000 to lock up a non-violent juvenile — that money can be reinvested back into diversion and treatment programs for non-violent youthful offenders,” Ward said.

Ward said it would save money in the long term as well. Studies show that youthful offenders sent to detention services have a higher rate of recidivism than those who aren’t.

“That saves us so much money in the long term as well by not having them continue out of juvenile into the adult corrections system,” Ward said.

Money saved would be distributed on an as-needed basis depending on the need of local community intervention programs. Ward said the change would be better than a distribution formula because that would split the money between some counties that already have enough funds and others that are broke.

“You’re not going to be guaranteed locked into anything, and I think that’s wise, because if you’re locking in numbers, you’ll spread it so thin across the state that it won’t make any difference anywhere,” Ward said.

Ward said the money could also be invested into new programs to tackle crime among youthful offenders.


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Ivey signs pay raises into law

Brandon Moseley



Thursday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law bills providing pay raises for state employees, education employees and a one-time bonus for retired state employees; joining her for the signing were the sponsors of the bills.

“We cannot have an effective state government without excellent employees. I am proud to have proposed the first raise for state employees to pass in close to a decade and I appreciate the work of the legislature in approving the pay increase as well as a one-time bonus for retired state employees,” Ivey said. “Our teachers mold our children and thus our teachers mold our future – that’s why I proposed a teacher pay raise and why I am pleased to sign it into law.”

House Bill 174 was sponsored by state Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, and carried in the Senate by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. HB174 enacts a 2.5 percent salary increase for public education employees of K-12 public schools, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, the Department of Youth Services School District, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the Alabama High School of Mathematics and Science and the two-year post-secondary institutions under the Board of Trustees for the Community College System, effective Oct. 1, 2018.


Senate Bill 185 was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, and carried in the House by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery. SB185 enacts a three percent salary increase for state employees and appellate judges effective beginning Oct. 1, 2018.

Senate Bill 215 was sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and carried in the Alabama House by state Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper. SB215 grants a one-time lump-sum bonus of one dollar per month for each year of service to Employees’ Retirement System retirees whose effective date of retirement is prior to May 1, 2018, or their beneficiaries. This one-time bonus will be granted during Fiscal Year 2018.

State employees and teachers have not gotten many raises since before the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009, but the state has avoided prorating the budgets since 2011.

The 2019 fiscal year budget is the second largest in state history, being surpassed only by the 2007 budget.

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Ethics Commission: Not Subject to Ethics Laws

by Bill Britt Read Time: 3 min