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Opinion | New ethics reforms are born to die

Bill Britt



By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Long-awaited legislation to strengthen and clarify existing ethics laws is being sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Senate Bill 343 pointedly addresses significant concerns — both real and theoretical — within the code, from charitable giving, who is a principal, what are acceptable gifts under the friendship exemption clause and who is not covered by the ethics law, just to name a few.

Since former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s conviction on 12 felony counts of violating the current ethics laws, a host of lawmakers, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate entities have called for reforms to resolve what they say are ambiguities in the existing laws.

Senate Bill 343 offers the very clarity that is called for by these many groups and individuals.


Reform-minded advocates, including APR, are greatly appreciative of Senator Marsh’s leadership and courage in bringing this historic bill to the legislative body.

The District Attorneys Association vetted SB343 and gave it a unanimous vote of approval. But other than Marsh’s sponsorship and the DA’s support, the bill has few champions.

Attorney General Steve Marshall has not issued a press statement in favor of the bill, much less a held a press conference, despite his office’s propensity to issue press releases and hold press conferences even when a courthouse custodian is convicted of stealing a roll of toilet tissue.

This week, instead of walking the halls of the State House gathering votes for a bill written by his office, Marshall is partying in Washington D.C. with his righthand protege, Katherine Robertson. The two are in “The Swamp” soliciting campaign contributions from the Republican Attorney General’s Association and its donors rather than pressing for ethics reform. Marshall, like the fabled Nero, is fiddling while the ethics bill goes up in flames.

State ethics laws have been under attack on multiple fronts since Hubbard’s conviction.

Marshall, rather than manning-up, has stood by, blithely ignorant of how his mere presence has undercut all notions of ethics reform. From sideshow hearings before the state’s Ethics Commission — which were orchestrated by Hubbard’s former attorneys — claiming charitable contributions are suffering because of confusion in the ethics laws, to wealthy donors who privately offer support to candidates who will weaken the statutes, Marshall has done little more than pay lip-service to change. He has spent the majority of his time pandering to monied donors who profit most when laws are lax.

Far too many business entities want to continue buying legislators favors with gifts of friendship, and even more public officials long for the good ol’ days of freewheeling quid pro quo without serious oversight. Lastly, if all else fails, those who would weaken the ethics laws will settle for a status quo that allows the Ethics Commission to continue “making law” through Advisory Opinions.

Senate Bill 343 could change all this, but it’s doubtful there is will to see the legislation receive any serious consideration other than a brief moment the sun.

Today’s lawmakers yearn for yesteryear, when ethics laws had more in common with Jell-O wrestling and 25-cent peep shows.

Best-case scenario is the bill will be a starting point for an appointed commission to make final recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.

Many in the District Attorneys Association and within the justice arm of state government see SB 343 as the bill which should have been adopted in 2010 rather than the one crafted under the direction of then-Gov. Bob Riley, BCA chieftain Billy Canary and Hubbard.

While Marsh is to be commended, it seems SB 343 is merely window dressing covering a failure of leadership.

No doubt SB 343 was born to die.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Countdown to the end of session: Don’t let the screen door hit you

Bill Britt



As the 2018 legislative sessions sprints towards the finish line, it is too early to count the winners and losers accurately. Perhaps it is enough to identify the heroes and villains — or merely recognize survivors. But even those player categories are a bit elusive for now, but they are coming into focus in these final days.

The twentieth legislative day finds over 900 bills introduced, 175 being approved by both chambers, 93 enacted, 71 awaiting the governor’s signature and 11 constitutional amendment bills pending referendum.

Like any royal court, there are those who have obtained new favor and those who have slid back a rung or two.

So far, the most notable survivor is BCA’s Billy Canary who, against all the odds, still hangs on to his chairmanship at the once valued business alliance. But like his dear friend, convicted felon and former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, his survival is more dependent on the endurance of his foes than the resolve of his allies.


While Canary’s supporters have rallied to keep him in place, those who would see corruption ousted from power steadily gather strength as they understand that real progress for the state is not possible as long as he leads at BCA. Perhaps the only answer is to bring the entire organization to its knees in order to remove the cancer that infects it. So, Canary remains for now, but nothing is so inevitable in life as change.

On a brighter note, a most noticeable change in the 2018 session is that under the leadership of House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, politics is no longer a zero-sum game as it was under his predecessor, disgraced felon Hubbard. Some would mistake McCutcheon’s fairness for weakness, but longtime political observers see his evenhandedness as a sign of quiet confidence often lacking in iron-fisted demagogues. For Hubbard and the like, it is never enough to win, but the other side must lose.

There is little doubt that Gov. Kay Ivey’s commerce secretary and the state’s attorney general have fostered lies and deception in their drive to pass HB317, a bill that will essentially gut portions of the state’s ethics laws.

Gov. Ivey asks Pro Tem Marsh to press forward with controversial bill

Today, the bill is set to go before the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee for consideration. While it may pass out of committee in deference to its Senate sponsor, President Pro Tem Del Marsh, it will most likely die on the Senate floor should it be unwisely pulled from the basket.

On Tuesday, two retiring Senators joked about how if HB317 passes, they will both immediately sign on as “less than full-time” economic development professionals next year, taking advantage of aspects of the law that circumvent the “revolving door” statutes of the state’s ethics laws.

HB317 not only opens a loophole to bypass current ethics laws, it also allows lawmakers and public officials to leave office and start over as economic development professionals without violating that revolving door statute. Imagine the pain endured by Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield as he has watches others make millions off economic development while he has had to settle with traveling the world like an aging playboy on the taxpayers’ dime.

Should HB317 pass as written, Canfield can leave office next year and take advantage of the riches he has been denied as a public servant. Perhaps he will be joined by AG Steve Marshall in a remake of a sad but hilarious buddy movie in which the pair is cast as losers in a situation where they are woefully inept at finding their dream until the last minute of the film.

Shameful efforts to break the state ethics laws by piecemeal legislation is likely to be the legacy of the 2018 session.

Opinion | Piecemeal approach to ethics reform continues, and it’s questionable

Despite the pitfalls of HB317 and HB387, on Monday Marsh said, “I’ve been in contact with the attorney general and the ethics commissioner,” and, “There are two bills that I’m looking at, that’s [HB317] one of them, that deal with ethics. Those are the two bills that I will consider.” So it is likely that there will be one last push to break the ethics laws, which is a shameful ending to this “non-controversial” spectacle of a legislative session.

But then, just maybe, it’s the beginning of the end when we finally say goodbye, so long and don’t let the screen door hit you to the many bad actors who have plagued our state since Hubbard and his cronies stormed the State House in 2010.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | AG, commerce secretary hide real problem with economic development bill

Bill Britt



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During a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the controversial economic development bill, HB317, not a soul present addressed the critical problem with the bill — the gaping loophole created by allowing individuals to work as part-time economic development professionals.

Of course, the bill doesn’t use the words part-time. Instead, it calls this individual a “less than full-time,” economic development professional – there is a difference without a distinction.

The bill, currently stalled in committee, is slated to re-appear next week after Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh met with Gov. Kay Ivey, who expressed her desire to see the legislation move forward, according to those with knowledge of the meeting. Ivey’s office acknowledged that the governor and the Senate president pro tem were joined by two unidentified staffers, but little else was publicly known about the conversation.

Keen observers of the ethics laws, like the Alabama Political Reporter’s own analysis, believe HB317 could be passed without controversy by simply removing the “less than full-time” provision and tweaking the bill to not allow lawmakers and public officials to avoid the revolving-door statute because of HB317’s vagueness on the issue.


But removing the less than full-time language is problematic since Attorney General Steve Marshall, Gov. Kay Ivey’s commerce secretary, Greg Canfield, and others have refused even to acknowledge there is a classification of part-time economic development professionals.

During the House debate last week, Republican lawmakers were assured the part-time provision was stripped from the bill, but it was not. Canfield and Marshall, with the aid of high-powered attorneys/lobbyists from Bradley Arrant, devised the ambiguous language “less than full-time,” to trick wary House Republicans into passing the bill, which they did.

Bentley appointees trick lawmakers into passing dangerous ethics, economic development bill

Several legislators expressed their anger after learning about the deception by reading about it in APR.

None of these warnings from APR and other press outlets discouraged Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, from holding what he called a chairman’s hearing on Wednesday.

Originally announced as a public hearing, Williams, chair of the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, changed the meeting to what he called a chairman’s hearing, which is an unknown committee meeting with dubious origins.

Senators present expressed dismay at Williams holding a hearing at which only individuals and groups favorable to the bill were permitted to speak.

Marsh to meet with Gov. Ivey to decide fate of economic developer bill

And speak they did, without ever addressing the less than full-time designation.

Katherine Robertson spoke on Marshall’s behalf and not only expressed her boss’s support for the legislation but the urgent need to pass the bill this session. Robertson, like her boss, failed to mention the part-time exception.

Last week, Marshall said HB317’s amendments were written by a “top official from my corruptions division.”

However, neither Matt Hart or Mike Duffy, the senior members of the public corruption unit, have spoken publicly or privately. In fact, lawmakers who have talked to Hart and Duffy say neither would comment on HB317 or any ethics legislation.

It’s no secret that Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, is working to dismantle the public corruption unit led by Hart. Marshall’s election campaign is being funded by many of those who protected former Speaker Mike Hubbard and a host of out of state individuals with no apparent ties to Alabama.

Perhaps most spectacular was the appearance of state ethics chair Jerry Fielding, who praised the legislation, ostensibly giving it the Ethics Commission’s stamp of approval despite the fact that the commission’s executive director, Tom Albritton, publicly voiced his opposition to HB317. Albritton, Hart and Duffy are perhaps being muzzled because to speak would expose their bosses’ big lie.

Privately before Wednesday’s chairman’s meeting, Fielding assured Decatur Republican Sen. Arthur Orr that four of the five sitting ethics commissioners were supportive of the bill. He further expressed his promise that the commission wanted to work in conjunction with the legislature.

As envisioned by those who established the ethics commission, Fielding’s assurance of working hand-in-glove with lawmakers would be considered inappropriate at best.

Fielding, during his presentation, never mentioned the less than full-time rule.

Why is the less than full-time exception so crucial to all these so-called public servants?

If we knew who was paying Bradley Arrant, the full answer might be identified. On the surface, it doesn’t take much imagination to see individuals like former Gov. Bob Riley exiting his lobbying business to become a less than full-time economic development professional. Or wealthy business investor, Will Brooke, who like Riley, was entangled in Hubbard’s conviction on public corruption charges.

Under HB317’s less than full-time exception, Brooke, Riley and others could give lavishly to lawmakers like Hubbard without fear of being ensnared by the ethics laws. But that’s just a quick look at why Marshall, Canfield and others pretend that the less than measure exists.

Perhaps Marshall could remove all doubt by letting someone who actually knows the law speak on the subject or Gov. Ivey could demand Canfield come clean. Neither is likely to happen.

A fix for the worrisome parts of HB317 is at hand, but for now, there seems no one willing to admit a problem exists.


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Bill Britt

Opinion | Piecemeal approach to ethics reform continues, and it’s questionable

Bill Britt



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Two bills designed to dramatically alter current ethics laws were approved by the House Ethics Committee last week. As introduced in the House, HB387, sponsored by Republican lawmaker Rep. Rich Wingo, would among other things allow public officials to hide potentially illegal acts under a new notifications rule. Wingo’s bill is companion legislation to SB221, sponsored by Republican Sen. Trip Pittman.

Another stab at rewriting current ethics laws is found in HB432, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alan Baker, which will greatly expand the powers and purview of the executive director of the Ethics Commission.

Earlier this month in a press conference, Republican lawmakers Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Mike Jones seemed to signal a halt to any new ethics legislation during the current legislative session.

In announcing a newly formed commission to study and make recommendations as proposed by SB343, these powerful Republican legislators said the issue of ethics reform was better left until the 2019 legislative session.


Ethics reform bill to sit on hold until next session as lawmakers begin discussions

However, last week, without the simplest acknowledgment of irony, HB387 and HB432 were championed by House Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. Ball, an intemperate critic of the laws that convicted his friend, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, hustled the bills out of his committee despite leadership’s suggestion just days earlier.

Ball not only defended Hubbard after his conviction on felony offenses, he has also repeatedly accused the state prosecution team members of criminal acts during Hubbard’s trial. Despite Ball’s unfounded claims and outspoken desire to kill ethics laws that convicted Hubbard, he remains head of the House Ethics Committee.

HB387 and HB432: Potential for Mischief

A detailed analysis of the two bills’ potential damage to state ethics laws is perhaps too exhaustive to enumerate without it becoming a somnolent potion, however, even a top-level reading of the bills casts light on just how dangerous these laws could be in the wrong hands.

Pittman-Wingo deals a blow to transparency

On its face, the Pittman-Wingo bills do little more than create a meaningless “notification” requirement. But a deeper dive shows that under this new notification provision, a lawmaker may take a job or a consulting contract with a principal – forbidden under current law, or any business without seeking an ethics advisory opinion.

Under this statute, the Ethics Commission is neither authorized or required to do anything at all with the notification, and while the lawmaker’s employment would be public record, someone would need to know about the filing to ever know to look for it.

These bills, as written, make no distinction between consulting contracts from principals or other businesses that do not hire lobbyists.

As APR has pointed out on numerous occasions, all revisions, additions or alterations to the present Ethics Act must be viewed in light of the Hubbard prosecution and conviction.

Under the Pittman-Wingo scheme, with a simple notification to the ethics commission, legislators may enter into a consulting contract or job without needing a review.

Imagine the fun Hubbard’s lawyer would have had with this statute.

“Thank God, for these notifications. Poor Mike filed his paperwork with the commission, and now the attorney general from Timbuktu is trying to throw this good-Christian-family-man in prison for just working to put food on his family.”

These are just a few examples of latent possibilities for misconduct under the Pittman-Wingo scheme.

Expanding powers of the executive director

HB432, carried in the House by Rep. Baker, with its companion legislation, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward – both Republicans – would significantly expand the sphere of influence of the Ethics Commission’s executive director.

Any examination of laws governing the state ethics commission should begin with questioning the effectiveness of the commission as it presently functions.

Comprised of political appointees who, at times, appear to rule with the caprice of a Marseilles madame, the commission on occasion has created laws while stretching the existing ones beyond any reasonable facsimile of their intended meanings.

The commission’s executive director is hired by the commission and is likewise subject to its whims or will be fired.

A summary of the bill’s intentions, as APR discussed with Ward and Ethics Director Tom Albritton, would permit more flexibility for minor ethics violations and allow the director to “self-generate[d]” a complaint. It would also empower the director and his staff to go beyond the “four corners” of a complaint. If passed in its current form, these companion bills would authorize the director to bypass the state’s attorney general or district attorneys in favor of the U.S. attorney in public corruption cases.

Some of these provisions run counter to current law and give unelected bureaucrats more power and influence than they already command.

While granting the executive director more flexibility on minor offenses, it would seem wholly imprudent to undermine the attorney general’s role as a constitutional officer and top law enforcement official in the state. With this in mind, should the law allow political appointees to usurp power granted to the attorney general?

If enacted, these bills would massively expand the investigative authority of the commission. Current Director Albritton has argued publicly that the commission already has power to self-generate a complaint, and that is true, but only by degrees. There is a process whereby the commission can initiate an investigation without receiving a formal complaint from outside sources. A procedural process is currently in place that somewhat safeguards against an unscrupulous use of an ethics investigation. Director Albritton may never abuse his power, but that doesn’t mean the next director will not.

There are other questions unanswered by these bills that should be thoroughly vetted before passage.

President Pro Tem Marsh said of sweeping ethics reforms, “It deserves all the questions to be asked to make sure we are covering everything.”

A piecemeal approach has been rejected by most in Republican leadership. Perhaps it’s time for Ball and others to follow suit.


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Opinion | New ethics reforms are born to die

by Bill Britt Read Time: 3 min