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Bill Britt

Ethics Review Committee is a long con

Bill Britt

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After last week’s initial meeting of the Ethics Review Committee, it’s now apparent that the body, as far as its leaders are concerned, is not assembled to strengthen and clarify the state’s ethics laws but weaken it through a wholesale rewrite. In other words, the Ethics Review Committee is a prop in a confidence scheme.

It seems the real purpose of the committee is to provide cover for lawmakers when, during the 2019 Legislative Session, the current “toughest in the nation’s” ethics laws are gutted like a prize pig.

Doing away with the present statutes should come as no surprise since Republican lawmakers and some businessmen have worked to overturn the ethics laws since Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony violations of the existing laws.

As in high stakes, poker lawmakers have “tells” which, when read, reveal their true intentions.

The resolution that created the Ethics Review Committee reads in part, “[T]he multiple piecemeal amendments over the last 40-plus years and the evolving interpretation of the Code of Ethics have created an environment where reasonable individuals can sometimes disagree on what is permitted and what is not with the result that qualified individuals are discouraged from seeking public office.”

Citing a law as old implies it antiquated and in need of replacement to fit the times. Piecemeal here is used as a pejorative to indicate the law is flawed because of so many additions. It also states that reasonable individuals disagree on what is permitted and what is not. Finding a reasonable person is a stretch, but what this means is when someone wants a way around the laws or breaks the law, they hire an attorney to argue about what the law means. Lastly, the authors of the resolution establishing the committee want the public to believe the laws discourage qualified individuals from seeking public office.

These are all talking points that only mean they are going to scrap existing laws.

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It’s almost like the committee itself is an unwitting partner in a confidence trick. This move against the state’s ethics act feels like a “long con” in which, “a scam unfolds over a period of time and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines,” according to Amy Reading’s The Mark.

The set-up began in earnest during the 2018 Legislative Session when Republican House and Senate leaders promised the public that the committee would use SB343 as the starting point for the review committee’s suggested changes.

But using SB343 as the underlying law on which to build is now being trashed.

At the end of the first meeting, Jefferson County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Joseph Boohaker asked, “Are we going to work in the existing Ethics law? Are we working on SB343? Or are we just starting from scratch?”

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, who co-chairs the committee, answered, “I think all three are possibilities. That’s what this committee should decide. If there are things you like about the existing law, then you can propose we keep those. If you like the Attorney General’s bill, then you can suggest those. If you want to start from scratch, then I would encourage you to present something to the committee that you do like.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh introduced SB343 during the 2018 Legislative Session. The bill was painstakingly constructed primarily by the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division led by Matt Hart, a team assembled under former Attorney General Luther Strange that worked since August 2016, to deliver a comprehensive re-write of the Alabama Ethics Act. During the process, Hart’s team met with all the significant stakeholders which amounted to more than two dozen different groups consisting of attorneys, lobbyists, associations, prosecutors and university officials, as well as direct discussions with the Legislature, including Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency.

According to sources within many of those discussions, there was universal agreement that SB343 satisfied the concerns of the various interests.

The committee may be comprised of exceptional individuals, but the fix is in, and the grifter’s prize is a return to a lawless Legislature led by those who serve themselves, not the people.

The game is on, and mischief is afoot. It’s a con.

 

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