By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
Jim Sumner, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, received the Council of Governmental Ethics Law’s annual COGEL award this year. He was presented the award while on a visit to their meeting in Quebec City on December 11th.
Sumner has been the director of the ethics commission since 1997, before which he had been Vice Chancellor for external affairs of the University of Alabama System. According to the Ethics Commission’s website, Sumner is also currently serving as Deputy Attorney General under AG Luther Strange.
Many have been critical of Sumner and the commission in general over the last few years as the state has seen an increase in public and political corruption. For example, Marshall County is facing a multimillion dollar lawsuit over the actions of the now-ousted revenue commissioner. Other counties are facing similar claims of property value tampering.
There is also the issue of the expected upcoming grand jury indictments from Lee County. Numerous legislators and lobbyists have been subpoenaed, with Republican Senator Del Marsh reportedly testifying for several hours.
Despite all this, Jim Sumner traveled to Quebec earlier this month to receive the award. To his credit, though, Sumner is not the only one seemingly continuing on regular business unmoved, despite a clearly questionable ethics environment.
Speaker Mike Hubbard posted on Twitter a week before Sumner received the award: “Our ethics laws, once among the weakest in the nation, are now among the strongest. #alpolitics” This does not seem like the tweet of a politician worried about possible prosecution under these so-called strict laws.
Mike Hubbard also recently sent out a new direct mail piece accusing “internet….mudslingers” of posing as “real reporters,” which some have interpreted as possible witness tampering or jury pool tampering.
While Sumner and ALGOP leaders still say only that there “may” be a “small uptick” of ethics complaints and violations, some longtime conservatives are wary of the current level of corruption in the party. In reference to the situation since the Republican takeover of the legislature in 2010, Claire Austin, GOP insider and V Team member, expressed disappointment on behalf of herself and those “who have worked for a long time for this” political takeover just to see it all lost to ethics scandals.
Former Governor Bob Riley, who APR has identified as potentially financially benefiting from the Accountability Act, wrote a recommendation letter for Jim Sumner to receive the award.
While Ethics Commission action has been virtually nonexistent as of late, Sumner is widely credited with attaining the power of subpoena on behalf of the commission. He has also worked to limit the expenditures of lobbyists in campaigns, though the effectiveness of this policy may be in question given a recent APR report that a Montgomery City Councilman recused himself from a vote because of his own position as a registered payday loan lobbyist.
No significant ethics legislation has yet been proposed for passage in the 2014 State legislative session.