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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

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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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Bill Britt

Opinion | The last refuge of a scoundrel

Bill Britt

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The Republican Party nationally and especially here in Alabama prides itself on its patriotism.

But what is patriotism?

Noted English scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), best known for “A Dictionary of the English Language” wrote, “It is the quality of patriotism to be jealous and watchful, to observe all secret machinations, and to see publick dangers at a distance. The true lover of his country is ready to communicate his fears, and to sound the alarm, whenever he perceives the approach of mischief.”

Today, it seems that those who expose corruption or sound an alarm where there is injustice are often vilified.

It appears that rewards most often go to those who ignore wrongdoing or worse, enable it.

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Over the last eight years when scandal has rocked the state’s Republican political elite, the state’s Republican governor, Lt. governor, legislators and the Alabama Republican Party did not call out the perpetrators. More often, they remained silent or offered them aided comfort.

Only on the rarest occasions did anyone dare utter a word, much less raise the type of patriotic alarm Dr. Johnson wrote about in his book, “Patriot.”

Likewise, when Gov. Robert Bentley ran amuck, those around him remained silent or enabled his dangerous behavior.

The House did finally launch an investigation into Bentley, but only after it became apparent that he was too weak and incompetent to offer much of a defense. Still today the Republican led government chooses to pay Bentley’s legal bills rather than cut ties with its former leader.

When Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was brazenly using his office for personal gain, not only did the Republican establishment support him, traditional news outlets, as well as radio talking heads and online media, remained willfully quiet, or in some cases voiced Hubbard’s defense or talking points.

It should be noted that Republican Rep. Will Ainsworth, who is the current Republican nominee for Lt.Governor, did stand in the well of the House and call out Hubbard for his crooked ways. At the time, many said Ainsworth’s political career was over, but they were wrong. There were also other individuals who worked in private to bring about Hubbard’s righteous end, but they were few.

Merriam-Webster found that patriotism was one of the top eight political buzzwords of 2016, but what does it actually mean?

The roots of political patriotism are found in the ancient understanding of the Greek and Roman concepts of loyalty to the republic and is “associated with the love of law and common liberty, the search for the common good, and the duty to behave justly toward one’s country,” according to Britannica.com

Over the last few years, patriotism has been confused with nationalism and they are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a marked difference. Nationalism is more about the homogeneity of culture, language and heritage, while patriotism places its emphasis on shared values and beliefs.

Patriots may come in many forms, but patriotism has certain irrefutable qualities far beyond mere outward gesture; speaking truth to power, exposing wickedness wherever it’s found and holding high the sacred values that are enshrined in our founding documents.

It is neither the individual who stands for the National Anthem hand-over-heart or the one who kneels head-in-hand, but it is the one who lives the founding principle of our nation who shows patriotism.

Isn’t it time for Republicans here in Alabama to do more than mouth the word patriotism?

The patriot is ever watchful, ever ready and always mindful that there are those among us who will steal, kill and destroy the blessings of liberty while claiming that their’s is true patriotism.

As Dr. Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Three cheers for cheaters, conmen and crooks

Bill Britt

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Lobbyists and others representing special interests give millions to lawmakers in the form of campaign contributions, and it doesn’t even matter if they are legally or ethically right; they are a must.

Not only are these contributions acceptable and expected, in many cases, it is demanded with valued treats.

With millions in contributions, lobbyists and other entities with business before the state are, in fact, buying favors from an elected official and in turn, many of these so-called public servants reciprocate with favorable legislation and other goods not readily available to those who don’t pony up.

What is obvious is there is a pervasive give-to-get mentality that infects much of Montgomery.

A recent email sent by political consultant Brent Buchanan on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed makes it clear leadership is watching who plays ball and who doesn’t.

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Fundraiser or shakedown?

Buchanan is not only a paid operative for state Senate Republicans, but he is also Gov. Kay Ivey’s campaign manager; therefore, his words matter because of who he represents.

Those close to Marsh and Reed think it’s doubtful they approved Buchanan’s indiscreet warning – that money is expected from lobbyists and other interests. But this attitude has become so common under Republican rule over the last eight years that it passes for normal behavior.

Pay-to-play or be sidelined is understood.

It’s tiresome to recall how in 2010, Republicans championed ethics and campaign finance reform only to now have abandoned any pretense of upholding them.

Under the guise of reform, they intend to gut current ethics statutes like a feral hog during the upcoming legislative session. Even now, holding the Republican-appointed Ethics Commission to the strict letter of campaign finance laws has become such a joke that Secretary of State John Merrill is publicly calling out the commission for not doing its job.

Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Amazingly, the state’s Republican Party continues to support it’s attorney general nominee, who has clearly violated the state campaign finance laws by blatantly accepting  $735,000 in contributions that are prohibited under the law.

Current Attorney General Steve Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, accepted unlawful contributions from an out-of-state special interest and no one says a word – not the state’s Ethics Commission’s executive director, not the governor or the Republican Party chair.

Add these to what amounts to legal extortion and bribery and a vivid picture emerges of a Republican majority that doesn’t care about the rule of law or civil propriety.

What is the message here?

Shakedowns are fine as long as it’s for our team.

Cheating is okay as long as it’s our team that wins.

Moral character, honesty of purpose and humility of service be damned,

Those who revere power over principle may prosper but never for long where there are individuals who value integrity over gain.

The Republican Party in Alabama used to stand for something, now it seems to cheer for cheaters, conmen and crooks, but perhaps someday it will come back to its senses.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Time for an ethics champion to step forward

Bill Britt

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A majority of Alabama voters are “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, however, Republicans who once championed strong ethics laws have retrenched or given up the fight altogether.

Our state needs a champion who will lead the battle to keep the state’s ethics laws strong: a singular individual with the courage to do what others lack even the nerve to say.

When the Alabama Republican Party drafted its first ever statewide party platform in August, the state’s ethics laws were not listed among its priorities.

Likewise, Republican leadership in the state Legislature and the Attorney General’s Office have abandoned the ethics reforms established in 2010.

Most tellingly, on the day that the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s 12 felony convictions for violating the state’s ethics laws. Attorney General Steve Marshall was at the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission where he told gathered reporters that the court’s opinion made it clear why the commission’s work was so important.

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What the court actually did was perform a political magic trick that at once upholds 11 counts of Hubbard’s conviction while creating doubt on who is a principal and what constitutes a conflict of interest while making it legal for a lawmaker to vote on legislation while getting paid to do so by an outside interest.

The court satisfied the wishes of big Republican donors, just like Marshall, whose campaign is being heavily funded by those who want Hubbard to go free or at the very least be the last man in a suit to ever be charged under the 2010 ethics reform.

Another magic trick is naming a commission designed to water down the current ethics statutes a “Reform and Clarification Commission.” The commission’s sole purpose is to give political cover to those who wish to overturn rules that keep public officials from using their office for personal gain or receiving lavish perks from lobbyists.

A June report published by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows there is broad agreement among Alabama voters about what issues are important to them as the state nears a statewide election in November.

As first noted by APR’s Chip Brownlee, the report is the result of a survey PARCA conducted, polling Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and issues that are concerning to them. Based on the responses to the survey, PARCA identified and ranked voters’ top 10 critical issues – ethics and corruption rank the third top concern.

Alabama voters’ priorities: Education, healthcare and government ethics

Since Hubbard was indicted nearly four years ago for violating state’s ethics laws, his allies and those who wish to avoid his fate have deployed a variety of tactics to undermine the State’s Ethics Act.

Over the last several years, efforts to gut current laws have failed, but the efforts by the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission are  straight-out rewrites without a presence of righteousness.

The state’s ethics laws do not need to be reformed and clarified; they need to be clarified and strengthened – there is a critical difference.

But unless a champion steps forward, the people be damned. They may be “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, but the Republican Party can’t be bothered to even mention it, lawmakers want to overturn the laws, and the attorney general – he’s just happy corrupt former Gov. Robert Bentley gave him a job and big monied donors like having an AG for a lapdog.

Justice awaits a champion.

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Bill Britt

Labor Day’s forgotten meaning still hotly debated

Bill Britt

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Labor Day is intended to be a tribute to the labor movement and, “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Today, in Republican-dominated states, labor unions are seen as an enemy to free enterprise.

David Macaray writing for CounterPunch suggests it’s not the Republican Party that’s labor’s most dangerous adversary, but “Labor’s arch-enemy—and a truly dangerous enemy it is—happens to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Under partisan-Republican control the Business Council of Alabama has worked to marginalize organized labor’s influence in the State House and Governor’s Office.

Not long ago, Gov. Kay Ivey, while speaking at a labor conference, touted the state’s commitment as a staunch right-to-work state, a fact not welcomed by most of individuals present.

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Alabama became a right-to-work state by statute on Friday, Aug. 28, 1953. Nearly 65 years later, the state’s Republican lawmakers successfully pushed a ballot measure adding a right-to-work provision to the state constitution. Why after 65 years the state needed to pass a constitutional amendment to bolster a law already on the books was politics, not policy. However, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment.

According to the National Right to Work Committee, the justification for right-to-work legislation is that, “No worker should be forced to join or pay dues to a labor union in order to get or keep a job.”

As one might imagine, labor organizations see right-to-work policies as something much different than their counterparts.

“’Right to work’ is the name for a policy designed to take away rights from working people,” according to the AFL-CIO. “The real purpose of right to work laws is to tilt the balance toward big corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families. These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

“A lot of the good things we enjoy in this country today were hard won at the bargaining table where labors leaders stood for worker’s rights,” said Bren Riley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, which through it’s 37 International Affiliates represents about 60,000 working Alabamians.

Labor organizations in the state represent approximately 138,000 members or roughly 7.4 percent of the workforce.

While Alabama has recently experienced a rise in employment, like many states and the nation as a whole, wage-growth is stagnant.

“The federal minimum wage has languished at $7.25 for almost a decade now,” according to Think Progress. “Even as local governments are trying to pass $15 minimum wage bills, the Republican party continually opposes such measures, in some cases using state-house majorities to impede legislation.”

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an article by Emily Q. Hazzard, “It doesn’t matter if unemployment’s at 3.9 percent if their wages are low. They don’t have health care, and they can’t afford to send their kids to school.”

The City of Birmingham voted to increase its minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 in Feb. 2016. The state Legislature immediately took action to block the wage increase by passing a law that prevented, “local governmental entities from requiring minimum leave, wages, or other benefits for employees.” The statute further established that only the state had the authority to “establish uniform employment policies and regulations.”

Court allows Birmingham minimum wage lawsuit to move forward

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in June that a lawsuit that challenges the state’s actions to nullify the City of Birmingham minimum wage ordinance may go forward. If successful, Birmingham might upend the balance of power that has long favored the state Legislature and its White majority said those who favoring the wage increase.

During her first year in office, Gov. Ivey has doggedly focused on job growth in the state, and according to labor statistics, her efforts are paying dividends.

Like many other holidays, Labor Day now has mixed meanings. For many Alabamians, it’s the end of summer, the beginning of political nonsense, but most importantly, the start of football season – something we can all enjoy.

But for a moment, some will remember the good brought about by the once honored labor movement; others still curse its existence.

 

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

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