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The suits pick up another ethics win

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

It’s funny how many laws you can violate if you’re wearing a suit and tie.

There were lots of suits and ties in attendance Wednesday morning at the Alabama Ethics Commission’s regular meeting, where the five-man board was set to hear complaints from numerous charities about one of the Commission’s recent opinions.

That opinion, made in regards to a question from the Friends of McCalla charity – which was set up to raise money for a youth sports complex in Birmingham – placed broad restrictions on who could provide things of value to a lawmaker.

And so, there were all of the attorneys and powerbrokers at the Commission’s meeting on Wednesday, trying to make sure that the wheels of government continued to get their grease.

Because that’s what this is all about when you boil it down to the nuts and bolts of the thing – the Ethics Commission was coming dangerously close to preventing all business entities who have lobbyists from ever providing anything of value to any lawmaker.

That would be wonderful for the average citizen. Which, of course, means that just by general rule it can’t happen in Alabama.

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And just like clockwork, the Commission rescinded the rule.

I’m going to be perfectly honestly with you here: For the life of me, despite reading every opinion, dozens of news stories and sitting through two different Ethics Commission meetings about this opinion, I can’t figure out how this became such a huge deal.

And I certainly can’t figure out why non-profits of the 501(c)(3) variety were so adversely affected.

Basically, the opinion in question stated that said lawmakers couldn’t accept things of value from a “regulated class,” meaning businesses, associations, public boards, public employees or non-profits, if that entity employs a lobbyist or otherwise has business before the lawmaker.

In the wake of that opinion, however, charitable organizations all over the state were warned that the game had changed, that lawmakers were now afraid to solicit charity donations or support charities that employed lobbyists.

In addition, because of the broad definition of who might constitute a “principal” of a regulated class – the Commission said it was any executive member of the entity in question, such as a board member or CEO – a number of businesses were also unsure if they can now make donations to candidates or to certain charitable organizations.

Basically, no one was sure if they could continue buying influence, and Lord have mercy, what would lawmakers do then? Rely solely on doing what’s in the best interest of citizens? Oh, the horror.

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But in all of this hoopla over the ethics law and the opinion in question, the one thing that has become overlooked is the incredibly complicated and purposefully convoluted manner in which our campaign finance system is operated.

It’s essentially like taking advanced calculus, adding a dash of rocket science and then topping it off with a helping of season 2 of “True Detective.”

Only a select few have any idea what the hell is going on, and those people either can’t explain it to you or they have nothing to gain from your understanding.

This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It was not caused by a specific administration. It is not unique to Alabama.

And one of the biggest issues is the broad and generally confusing manner in which we grant non-profit status.

There are three different classifications – 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4) and 527 – which all have different rules and can all operate, at times, in direct contradiction with the laws in place that ensure an open government.

That’s why Wednesday’s ruling was so important to so many who play the lobbying game.

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If it’s suddenly illegal for any principal of a nonprofit that employs a lobbyist to give anything of value to a lawmaker, well, boom goes the lobbying industry. And boom goes the complicated system of nonprofits that have been set up to hide who’s giving how much money to which politician.

So, on Wednesday, the men in suits and ties stomped on the fuse and got away with yet another heist.


Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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