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Bill Britt

Opinion | New ethics reforms are born to die

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Long-awaited legislation to strengthen and clarify existing ethics laws is being sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Senate Bill 343 pointedly addresses significant concerns — both real and theoretical — within the code, from charitable giving, who is a principal, what are acceptable gifts under the friendship exemption clause and who is not covered by the ethics law, just to name a few.

Since former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s conviction on 12 felony counts of violating the current ethics laws, a host of lawmakers, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate entities have called for reforms to resolve what they say are ambiguities in the existing laws.

Senate Bill 343 offers the very clarity that is called for by these many groups and individuals.

Reform-minded advocates, including APR, are greatly appreciative of Senator Marsh’s leadership and courage in bringing this historic bill to the legislative body.

The District Attorneys Association vetted SB343 and gave it a unanimous vote of approval. But other than Marsh’s sponsorship and the DA’s support, the bill has few champions.

Attorney General Steve Marshall has not issued a press statement in favor of the bill, much less a held a press conference, despite his office’s propensity to issue press releases and hold press conferences even when a courthouse custodian is convicted of stealing a roll of toilet tissue.

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This week, instead of walking the halls of the State House gathering votes for a bill written by his office, Marshall is partying in Washington D.C. with his righthand protege, Katherine Robertson. The two are in “The Swamp” soliciting campaign contributions from the Republican Attorney General’s Association and its donors rather than pressing for ethics reform. Marshall, like the fabled Nero, is fiddling while the ethics bill goes up in flames.

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State ethics laws have been under attack on multiple fronts since Hubbard’s conviction.

Marshall, rather than manning-up, has stood by, blithely ignorant of how his mere presence has undercut all notions of ethics reform. From sideshow hearings before the state’s Ethics Commission — which were orchestrated by Hubbard’s former attorneys — claiming charitable contributions are suffering because of confusion in the ethics laws, to wealthy donors who privately offer support to candidates who will weaken the statutes, Marshall has done little more than pay lip-service to change. He has spent the majority of his time pandering to monied donors who profit most when laws are lax.

Far too many business entities want to continue buying legislators favors with gifts of friendship, and even more public officials long for the good ol’ days of freewheeling quid pro quo without serious oversight. Lastly, if all else fails, those who would weaken the ethics laws will settle for a status quo that allows the Ethics Commission to continue “making law” through Advisory Opinions.

Senate Bill 343 could change all this, but it’s doubtful there is will to see the legislation receive any serious consideration other than a brief moment the sun.

Today’s lawmakers yearn for yesteryear, when ethics laws had more in common with Jell-O wrestling and 25-cent peep shows.

Best-case scenario is the bill will be a starting point for an appointed commission to make final recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.

Many in the District Attorneys Association and within the justice arm of state government see SB 343 as the bill which should have been adopted in 2010 rather than the one crafted under the direction of then-Gov. Bob Riley, BCA chieftain Billy Canary and Hubbard.

While Marsh is to be commended, it seems SB 343 is merely window dressing covering a failure of leadership.

No doubt SB 343 was born to die.

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