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Ethics Commission could pull back veil on BCA conference donations

Exclusive interview with outgoing Ethics Commissioner

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama Ethics Commission will vote on an opinion Wednesday morning that will change the way multiple-sponsor events report gifts to lawmakers and state employees, a ruling that would close a loophole in Alabama’s ethics laws that has benefited the Business Council of Alabama.

For years now, the BCA has held an annual summer retreat at Point Clear, at which lawmakers are wined and dined and provided free rooms for themselves and their spouses. To cover the costs, the BCA solicits donations from a number of sponsors.

That has allowed the BCA and the event’s sponsors to skirt ethics laws that require donors to file reports noting any donation exceeding $250 to a lawmaker/state employee within a 24-hour time period. Because no single donor was doling out more than $250 directly to any lawmaker, nothing was reported.

To demonstrate how this works, an column two years ago noted that neither the BCA nor any other event sponsor had reported exceeding the $250 threshold at its 2013 summer conference. However, because members of Congress must report any travel and lodging expenses they receive, Rep. Mo Brooks’ disclosure contained reimbursements for nearly $1,300 over three days.

When columnist Kyle Whitmire called BCA executive director Billy Canary to ask why there was never reports filed by the BCA or the conference’s sponsors, the response was short and referenced “fantasy journalism.”

But the Ethics Commission now agrees that there is a problem.

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The opinion that will land before the commissioners Wednesday morning will require the BCA and its conference sponsors to be much more specific and do much more math.

Up front, for multi-sponsor events wishing to gain pre-certification from the Ethics Commission, they must file a statement listing all sponsors, list all donation amounts that will be aggregated and the specific expenses that will be covered.

Additionally, if expenses are aggregated, the sponsor must take the amount donated and divide it by the number of event attendees covered. If that number exceeds $250, it must be reported according to existing laws.

For example, if two sponsors donate a combined $10,000 to cover the cost of hotel rooms for 10 guests over two nights, the math says the sponsors must report donating $250 to all 10 lawmakers/state employees twice.

The advisory opinion also contains an exception for charity events in which sponsors provide tickets to the event to public officials.

The Ethics Commission meeting begins at 9:30 on Wednesday morning.

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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