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Exempt from Open Meetings Act, high stakes ethics committee begins work

Bill Britt

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A meeting that will potentially impact Alabama for generations is being held at 1 p.m. today, at the office of the attorney general. But the public would know about this important conference if they had only searched the legislative resource site dubbed, ALISON.

However, one would have to know to click on the ‘Meetings & Announcements’ section of The Alabama Legislature website to find when meetings are being held.

The meeting at the office of appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall is the first official gathering of the Ethics Review Council, a group of 22 individuals selected to offer changes to the State’s Ethics Act.

The committee is a result of questions, real and manufactured, about the laws written in 2010, by the Republican Supermajority.

The select committee is absent many of the state’s foremost ethics champions with only a handful of individuals that would have an in-depth understanding of the code.

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Most curiously missing are members of the attorney general’s office who actually wrote the majority of SB343, which was originally to be the starting point for the committee’s actions.

Special Prosecutions Divisions Chief Matt Hart, as well as others on his team, are excluded from the discussion. Grave concerns have given way to suspicions that the committee is little more than a rubber stamp giving lawmakers cover when the code is weakened during the 2019 Legislative Session.

Created under a Resolution sponsored by State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the committee’s activities do not fall under the State’s Open Meetings Act, according to the State’s Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton.

“The way it was set up as purely an advisory committee, it is not subject to the open meetings act,” said Albritton in a phone interview with the Alabama Political Reporter. “But the meetings are public…and posted on the ALISON website.”

This means the committee can meet privately, discuss matters outside of public review and enjoy an anonymity rarely granted a body contemplating sweeping laws with such far-reaching ramifications.

There is also a question of whether the appointed members of the committee are in fact accountable under the current ethics laws?

The idea of an ethics review committee is an outgrowth of the indictment and conviction of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Since Hubbard’s indictment nearly four years ago, an ongoing battle to weaken the state’s “toughest in the nation’s” ethics laws enacted in 2010. Even though they were championed by Hubbard and the Republican Party, they now face an onslaught of criticism from the same Republicans in the wake of Hubbard’s conviction.

Nearly two years after Hubbard’s sentencing, a war of sorts has been evident among those who want to strengthen and clarify the laws and those pushing to weaken current statutes under the guise of clarification.

Over the last several months, Republican leadership and some rank and file have begun lamenting the state’s ethics laws as a detriment to service. The refrain goes like this, “The ethics laws are so restrictive that only a wealthy individual or a retiree can serve in the legislature.”

Even the resolution that created the review committee hints at the talking-points routinely voiced by GOP House and Senate leadership.

The resolution reads in part, “[T]he multiple piecemeal amendments over the last 40-plus years and the evolving interpretation of the Code of Ethics have created an environment where reasonable individuals can sometimes disagree on what is permitted and what is not with the result that qualified individuals are discouraged from seeking public office.”

Albritton, who co-chairs the committee along with Marshall, says that SB343 will be part of the discussion but other ethics proposals will be part of the mix. Albritton cites an ethics model being written by the American Law Institute. The nearly 100-year-old group, which has always attracted “the elite of the legal elite,” according to reviews, has a partial ethics draft on its website.

ALI’s Government Ethics project, while not complete, focuses, “on standards applicable to the operations of the legislative and executive branches… [including] lobbying, gifts and other things of value given to public officials, conflicts of interest involving the private activities of public officials, the political uses of public office, and administration and enforcement mechanisms.”

As Albritton notes, ALI’s efforts are a work in progress. “The value is that it is the working project of scores of lawyers from all over the country at all levels of government who are approaching basically the same issue that we are here.”

During the 2018 Legislative Session, several ethics bills were put forward and most would have severely undermined current statutes. Hart and Albritton were purposefully blocked from offering commentary and advice by their respective bosses, Marshall and Ethics Commission Chairman Judge Jerry Fielding.

The committee expects to offer its recommendations to the Legislature before the 2019 session.

The committee members are as follows:

  • Three members of the Senate appointed by the President Pro Tempore:
  • Senator Greg Albritton
  • Senator Arthur Orr
  • Senator Bobby Singleton
  • Three members of the House appointed by the Speaker:
  • Representative Alan Baker
  • Representative Prince Chestnut
  • Representative David Faulkner
  • The Legal Advisor to the Governor: Bryan Taylor
  • The Attorney General: Steve Marshall/Clay Crenshaw
  • The Solicitor General: Andrew Brasher
  • The Chief Examiner: Ron Jones/Rachel Riddle
  • A district attorney appointed by DA Association: Brian McVeigh, Calhoun/Cleburne County.
  • A circuit judge appointed by the CJ Association: Joseph Boohaker, Jefferson County.
  • Supernumerary DA: Ellen Brooks
  • Two attorneys appointed by the State Bar:
  • Christy Crow
  • Mike Ermert
  • Two attorneys appointed by the Director of LSA:
  • Debbie Long
  • Bill Rose, Jr.
  • ACCA appointee: Sonny Brasfield
  • League of Municipalities Appointee: Mayor Ronnie Marks, Athens.
  • Two Appointees by the Council of Association Executives:
  • Tom Dart
  • Kim Adams
  • An appointee of the Alabama Press Association: Bob Davis, Anniston Star.

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BREAKING: BCA announces new executive committee members, ongoing transition plan

Chip Brownlee

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After a tumultuous summer for the Business Council of Alabama, one of the state’s most prominent business and lobbying groups, that included the ouster of the group’s longtime CEO, the BCA’s board of directors announced Wednesday a new plan to revitalize the group and a new executive committee that will lead the group through that transition.

The BCA says the plan “strengthens the organization’s governance structure to include a range of business leaders.”

The new executive committee, which welcomed back a number of previous BCA members, includes a number of BCA member organization leaders including some who had drawn back their involvement over the course of the last several months. One of those is Alabama Power, long considered the state’s most powerful business entity in the political arena.

Alabama Power was one of the first companies to temporarily withdraw from the organization in June in protest over the group’s leadership and management.

“The wholesale governance and leadership changes made today show what is possible when businesses come together with a common goal,” said Alabama Power Co. CEO Mark Crosswhite. “While the hard work of moving this organization forward remains, I am pleased with this progress and look forward to working with businesses across our state for a stronger BCA and a better Alabama.”

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The BCA’s new executive committee is made up of 11 individuals. Five represent some of the group’s larger businesses, five represent the group’s smaller businesses, and one trustee represents the Alabama Self-Insured Worker’s Compensation Fund.

“This structure ensures that BCA’s governance structure will be focused on those core issues that are critical to businesses of every variety and size,” said former BCA chairman Carl Jamison, who is also a member of the executive committee. “Going forward, it will allow us to build on BCA’s finest traditions and take the organization to a whole new level.”

The new executive committee elected today includes:

  • Rey Almodovar, CEO, Intuitive Research and Technology
  • Mark Crosswhite, CEO, Alabama Power Co.
  • Perry Hand, Chairman, Volkert Inc.
  • Denson Henry, Owner/Vice President, Henry Brick Co.
  • Carl Jamison, Shareholder, JamisonMoneyFarmer PC
  • Johnny Johns, Executive Chairman, Protective Life Corp.
  • John Mazyck, Principal, The Frazer Lanier Co.
  • Gary Smith, CEO, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative
  • John Turner, CEO, Regions Bank
  • Bobby Vaughan, Chairman of the Board, Alabama Self-Insured Worker’s Compensation Fund
  • Tim Vines, CEO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama

The new restructuring follows the ouster of former BCA CEO Billy Canary, who has now taken a position with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A number of high-profile withdrawals — including Regions Bank and PowerSouth Energy — rocked the group. The companies that withdrew from the group called for new leadership and a restructuring of the organization’s governance.

If the withdrawals were permanent, which now doesn’t appear to be the case, BCA could have lost its top seven contributors and more than $1 million in annual contributions, which could have been a devastating blow to a group that prided itself on being able to influence state politics.

One of the main tipping points was Canary’s degrading relationship with political leaders both on the state and national level along with his inability to foster any meaningful legislative progress. He was reportedly named a persona non grata in the Sen. Richard Shelby’s office and shunned by most of the state’s delegation in Congress. As APR editor Bill Britt put it at the time of the withdrawals, “Canary has accumulated more enemies than friends and increasingly finds himself isolated.”

His reputation was severely tainted during the June Republican primary elections and few candidates publicized a BCA endorsement while still taking the group’s monetary contributions. Much of Canary’s problems date back to his aligning himself with former Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who was convicted of a dozen felony ethics charges in 2016.

In both the 2017 legislative session, the BCA failed to push through any meaningful legislation and this year’s legislative session wasn’t much better, failing to garner support for key pieces of legislation top contributors backed.

When Alabama Power, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Regions Bank, Drummond Coal and others pushed back against Canary over the last year in an effort to reform the group, their efforts were rebuked by Canary and BCA chairman Perry Hand.

“Despite repeated assurances that our concerns will be addressed, there has been no meaningful response,” Crosswhite said in a June letter announcing the company’s temporary withdrawal from the group.

Representatives from Drummond Co. Inc., Kemp Management Solutions, Maynard Cooper & Gale, Parker Towing Co. and Progress Rail Services Corp. were also elected to the BCA board today.

Bobby Vaughan, a representative from the Alabama Self-Insured Worker’s Compensation Fund, said the restructured BCA should ensure the organization can provide value to the members.

“At the end of the day, our members are our customers,” Vaughan said. “Our job is to serve the interests of our members, and the new structure will enable us to do that more effectively.”

Heather Brothers New, chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, also weighed in.

“We are fortunate in Alabama to have a business community that understands the importance of providing strong leadership on matters that affect our state’s economic success,” New said. “Individuals, families and communities can’t thrive if our state doesn’t provide an environment where businesses can thrive. Everyone in Alabama benefits from this effort to ensure a unified and effective BCA.”

 

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Elections

Ivey appoints Kelly Butler acting director of finance

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, Governor Kay Ivey (R) announced that she has named Kelly Butler as Acting Director of the Alabama Department of Finance.

“Kelly Butler has more than two decades of experience working with the state’s budgets and more than three decades experience as a fiscal analyst,” Gov. Ivey said. “I know he will do an excellent job leading the Alabama Department of Finance during this interim period. I appreciate him stepping up as acting director and his commitment to my administration.”

Butler went to work with the Alabama Department of Revenue more than thirty years ago. He later worked for the Legislative Fiscal Office before joining the Alabama Department of Finance as Assistant State Budget Officer in 2012. Since that time, Butler most recently as Assistant Finance Director for Fiscal Operations.

As Assistant Finance Director, Butler oversees the State Comptroller’s Office, the State Purchasing Division, the State Debt Management Division, and the State Business Systems Division.

“I am honored that Governor Ivey has asked me to lead the Department of Finance,” Butler said. “The department has many talented employees who work hard to provide excellent services to other state agencies and to the people of Alabama. I look forward to working with them to continue those excellent services.”

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Butler’s appointment will be effective today, August 15, 2018. Former Director of Finance Clinton Carter has left to accept a position with the University of North Carolina system.

In addition to his new duties, Butler will continue his work on building the governor’s budget proposals leading up to the 2019 Legislative Session. Butler will serve in this position until a thorough search for a permanent Finance Director can be conducted.

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Elections

Ivey visits Mobile for opening of newest Walmart distribution center

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) was in Mobile County for the opening of a new Wal-Mart Distribution Center.

“Excited to be in Mobile Co. for the grand opening of @Walmart’s newest distribution center,” Ivey said on Twitter. “Walmart invested $135 million to build this facility, creating 750 jobs! I know that these folks will play a major role in fulfilling Mr. Sam Walton’s vision to serve the customer.”

Economic Developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Distribution centers, one of the State of Alabama’s foundational business targets, provide products and services that support a myriad of industries within our state. The Walmart Distribution Center in Irvington, one of six distribution centers in the United States, will be a significant addition to the estimated $22.4 billion economic impact generated last year by the Alabama State Port Authority.”

Nicole Jones explained to APR, “At last week’s economic development conference hosted by the EDAA, Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons shared with us that empty shipping containers are a much-needed commodity in Alabama. When fully operational, Walmart will carry in approximately 50,000 containers per year, which will thus create a surplus of empty cargo containers that exporters can use (and therefore reduce their costs). As a result, Alabama’s port will retain business that would otherwise divert to alternate ports due to a lack of containers. Keeping more business at home – this great news for Mobile County, The Port, and our entire state.”

The new Distribution Center will be 60 acres under one roof.

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“Mobile’s Walmart Distribution Center is officially open for business!” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said on Facebook. “They have already hired 575 people with plans to be at 750 once fully operational. Fun fact: this 2.6 million square ft facility can fit 30 USS Alabama ships.”

“Walmart proves to be a great corporate partner to the state of Alabama, year after year, by investing in its stores, its employees and the surrounding community,” Gov. Ivey said. “Their commitment cannot be better proven than by the opening of this new Distribution Center, which, when fully operational, will provide approximately 750 quality jobs in the Mobile area. We are grateful to Walmart for supporting the economic health of the Port City, and for the large role they play in propelling our great state forward.”

The new distribution center will supply 700 Wal-Mart stores.

“We are excited about how this facility will help us better serve our customers across the South and beyond, while creating a positive economic impact locally through job creation and future development,” said Jeff Breazeale, Walmart Vice President, Direct Import Logistics. “We are grateful to the State of Alabama, Mobile County, the City of Mobile, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama State Port Authority for the warm welcome we have received here, and we look forward to a strong partnership with the community for years to come.”

Mobile is Alabama’s port city. It is also the oldest City in Alabama, having been founded as a French colony in 1702, 31 years before the English founded the Georgia colony.

Since rising to the office of Governor, Kay Ivey has presided over an unprecedented period of job market improvement. June unemployment was 3.9 percent and the state has seen its total workforce rise to pre-Great Recession levels.

Ivey is running for her own term as Governor in the general election on November 6. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter “Walt” Maddox is her Democratic opponent.

(Original reporting by Berkshire Hathaway’s Business Wire contributed to this report.)

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Doug Jones says work requirements for SNAP would mean no Farm Bill

Brandon Moseley

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One of the most controversial issues facing the Congress this summer is whether Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries should work to receive their benefits or not. Monday, Senator Doug Jones (D) weighed in on the issue saying that if Republicans insist on the work requirement the farm bill will not pass the Senate.

“The House of Representatives in their Farm Bill wanted to create a lot of burdensome and onerous work requirements,” Sen. Jones said. “The Senate bill did not do that.”

Now the farm bill is in a conference committee where legislators from both Houses will try to iron out the differences between the two bills.  If the committee produces a compromise bill, that conference committee version still has to pass both Houses before it can go to the President’s desk.

“If they try to put those onerous requirements on SNAP it will not pass and we will not get a farm bill passed,” Jones said. “The Senate, even the Republicans, are trying to protect that program.”

The House Republicans have argued that the work requirements for able bodied SNAP benefits (most Americans still call the benefits “food stamps”) will encourage more able-bodied poor people to get jobs and contribute to the booming economy. The work requirements would not apply to the disabled, children, the elderly, or persons enrolled in a federally approved job training program.

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“That is a poison pill that could derail the whole thing,” Sen. Jones said. “And we really need a farm bill for our farmers.”

For decades, federal farm programs and food stamps (SNAP) were combined under the Department of Agriculture. Combining supplemental nutrition assistance with farm programs like crop insurance, the conservation reserve program (CRP), conservation assistance, and commodity price supports meant that Congress members that represented poor urban districts and rural districts where agriculture is vitally important both have reasons to support the combined legislation – the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill sets agricultures and SNAP policy for the next five years.

Sen. Jones said that President Donald J. Trump (R) is trying to move SNAP out of the Department of Agriculture; but Jones doubted that that governmental organization would pass out of the Senate.

Jones’s comments were made in his second town hall event. The town hall was held at the historic Parker High School in Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.

The event was emceed by State Representative Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham) who represents the area in the Alabama legislature.

Doug Jones is the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in 25 years. He was elected on December 12 to finish the remainder of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) term. Blacks, including the families in the Parker High School area, overwhelmingly came out in numbers to elect Jones over former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore. Jones faces re-election in 2020.

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Exempt from Open Meetings Act, high stakes ethics committee begins work

by Bill Britt Read Time: 5 min
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