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State ethics law puts few limits on lawmakers’ trips abroad

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The Legislature may have capped gifts to teachers at $25, but there are no similar limits to the trips lawmakers can take abroad.

At least four lawmakers took a jaunt to Turkey last year where travel and accommodations were paid in whole or in part by a group promoting bonds between Turkey and the United States. The groups sponsoring the trip offered a similar package to lawmakers at the beginning of the month, a journey that for individuals would cost anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000, according to pricing on the web site Travelocity.

The letter inviting legislators on the trip did not mention either educational or economic development opportunities, only saying legislators could “share this experience along with many guests from Europe.” That raised concerns from Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road.

“The ethics law is clear that for a trip to be allowed, there has to be a bona fide economic development aspect to it,” he said. “If the people offering this trip told us what a good-faith economic development project was, there might be some merit. (But) they don’t even claim an economic development benefit for this.”

After an inquiry from Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, last year, the Alabama Ethics Commission approved the trips, citing passages in the state’s ethics law that broadly allow lawmakers to go to “widely attended events,” “educational functions” and “economic development functions.”

Journeys to “educational functions” are limited to locations within the United States, but there is no similar limit on widely attended events, a distinction noted by the Ethics Commission in approving the trips to Turkey. The widely attended event must be a gathering where it is “reasonably expected” more than 12 people “with a diversity of views or interest will be present.”

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