On Wednesday, Alabama Political Reporter editor Bill Britt called for an Alabama leader to step forward to be “a champion who will lead the battle to keep the state’s ethics laws strong: a singular individual with the courage to do what others lack even the nerve to say.”
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) announced that he has considered doing exactly that for some time and will look at it again since the Wednesday opinion piece.
Britt wrote the piece pointing out many problems of Alabama’s ethics laws being weakened – and the continued possibility they will be further weakened. He called for an ethics law champion to step forward.
“The need for strong ethics laws is exactly a Jim Zeigler-type issue,” Zeigler said.
Zeigler said that he filed the initial ethics complaint against then-governor Robert Bentley (R). After Zeigler pursued the investigation for a year, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Bentley was in violation of ethics and campaign finance laws. Five days later, Bentley resigned his office and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor criminal offenses.
Auditor Zeigler also filed the lawsuit challenging the $47 million unbid contract for STAARS software for the state accounting system. The result was that the state threw in the towel and canceled the remainder of the STAARS contract, but the Alabama State Supreme Court dismissed Zeigler’s suit seeking recompense for state taxpayers. Zeigler has filed for a re-hearing, which is before the court now.
Zeigler said that he also uncovered the $1.8 million in BP funds which Bentley diverted to refurbish the “governor’s mansion at the beach” after Bentley lost his own beach house in his divorce from his wife of 50 years.
The Bentley administration retaliated against the Auditor’s office. Zeigler saw his budget cut by 28.5 percent in the last two Bentley budgets. Bentley’s staff was cut by half. Despite the cuts, Zeigler says that he has remained current on all audits.
In 2016, Zeigler’s wife, Jackie Zeigler (R), challenged and defeated a Bentley appointee to the State Board of Education (SBOE). She carried the seven counties of the first district by 62 percent to 38 percent despite a huge disadvantage in fund raising. She is now serving as the newest member of the SBOE.
In April, Zeigler’s auditors were evicted from their long-time offices in the Alabama State House. Last month, Zeigler relocated them into vacant space of in the Alabama Ethics Commission.
In August, Zeigler was not invited by the powerful Business Council of Alabama to their annual Government Affairs Conference at the plush Grand Hotel. It was the fourth straight year he was the lone statewide elected official that was uninvited by BCA.
Zeigler says his hesitancy to lead the fight for ethics laws is “practical Alabama politics.”
“Every time I take the lead on an issue, it makes it more difficult to sell the proposal to some of the Montgomery establishment,” Zeigler said. “My taking the lead on a cause automatically triggers some opposition in Montgomery. We need someone to take the lead for strong ethics laws who is less of a fighter and more of a negotiator.”
Zeigler suggested that retiring Senators Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) or Rusty Glover (R-Semmes). Zeigler said that he has not spoken with either yet but plans to do so.
“We do need a champion for strong ethics laws, but it needs to be someone who can sell the ideas to legislators,” Zeigler said.
A committee is currently studying rewriting Alabama’s ethics legislation. Proponents argue that the current law has had unintended consequences and needs to be clarified. Critics suggest that legislators want to weaken the ethics laws so that more of them can profit from their elected positions.
Eight members of the Alabama House of Representatives have been indicted, pled guilty to violating state or federal law, or have been found guilty by a jury since 2012, including a former Speaker of the House and the House Majority Leader.