By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—It is not widely know that the Alabama Ethic Commission provides confidential opinions to public officials, especially legislators…but they do.
Under former Director Jim Sumner, verbal advice was given from time to time without the weight of protection. Under the new administration of Tom Albritton, that private advice comes in written form. Unlike an official Advisory Opinion voted on by the full Ethics Commission, these private letters given primarily to lawmakers are not get-out-of-jail-free cards, but could serve as reasonable doubt in a legal proceeding.
Unlike an Advisory Opinion, which is made public (if you know what you are looking for), this private legal advice is kept secret and only becomes public once a lawmaker is in trouble.
Why does the Ethics Commission want to keep this advice secret and why is it being provided? Is this practice of giving free, secret, legal advice further proof of the Commission’s willingness to kiss the ring of even the lowliest legislator? Or is it a symptom of a broken institution that should be flushed like so much refuge?
The Commission has for many years been viewed as a paper tiger, something the Republican Supermajority tried to address when it gave the Commission subpoena power and severed the Commission’s budget from legislative whim. This individual publicly undisclosed guidance smacks of something more sinister. These cozy little permissions and secret loopholes granted certain individual legislators is scandalous and should demand a thorough investigation by a select panel under the direction of the Attorney General’s Office.
In fact, here’s a better idea: Demolish the entire Ethics Commission and place its duties under the State’s Attorney General. The Attorney General’s Office already has a Opinions Division and those opinions are actually reviewed by more than one lawyer.
Currently, legal opinions offered by the Ethics Commission are written by one man: Hugh Evans. While no one is questioning Evans’ knowledge and experience concerning Ethics Law, peer review and other legal-eagle eyes can be useful. These private opinions offer no public value at all, they only benefit the individual office holder. If a lawmaker is worried about committing an Ethics violation, they should hire an attorney. The Ethics Commission is not a legal “Dear Abby” for wayward lawmakers. If a legislator is worried that he or she might be breaking the law, they probably are.
There are serious problems inside the Ethic Commission, giving way to suspicion and fear that it, too, may very well be corrupted from the inside out.
In a 2010 paper from the University of Alabama entitled “Ethics Reform in Alabama,” Law Professor Susan Pace Hamill took a hard look at the need for ethics reform: “Currently in Alabama there is a widespread and consistent call for ethics reform that extends well beyond the political arena. Complaints about the current system and demand for change have been expressed by academics throughout the halls of Alabama’s universities, the editorial boards of the state’s major newspapers, and by ordinary citizens fed up with the culture of corruption.”
In 2010, the Republican Supermajority took steps to end the culture of corruption; but there is obviously more work to be done.
The Alabama Ethics Commission is comprised of five appointed members who are subject to the same laws they are charged with enforcing. Each member, “shall be a fair, equitable citizen of this state and of high moral character and ability,” according to the State statute 36-25-3 (a).
It is time for lawmakers, or perhaps, law-enforcement to take a closer look at the Ethic Commission.
No one is above suspicion.