An initial analysis of Senate Bill 230, which repeals and replaces sections of the Alabama Ethics Act as adopted in the 2010 special legislative session, finds that it makes two radical changes.
First, it removes the section of code that governs using a public office for personal gain, and secondly, it essentially turns the Alabama Ethics Commission into a repository for records.
It also allows for unlimited gifts from lobbyists or principals to public officials, changes the rules governing lobbyists and principals and more.
This analysis was prepared after consulting former lawmakers, prosecutors and ethics experts who spoke on background to preserve their independence should this matter require adjudication.
A commission to reform and clarify the ethics law was formed a year ago to make recommendations to the Legislature. The commission’s suggestions were largely ignored in SB230. Attorney General Steve Marshall and Director of the Ethics Commission Tom Albritton, who were co-chairs of the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission, have both come out against the bill as presented to the state Senate.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Sens. Greg Albritton, Jimmy Holley, Tom Whatley, Del Marsh, Clyde Chambliss, Tim Melson, Tom Butler, Will Barfoot, Chris Elliott, Shay Shelnutt and Donnie Chesteen. No Democratic senators are party to the legislation at this time.
In 2010, Republican lawmakers added strict laws to prohibit activities by public officials, lobbyists, principals and others under Section 36-25-1.
The new ethics statute removes Section 36-25-1, placing prohibited felony acts under the state’s criminal code.
Why is this move fraught with problems?
Under current law, it is a felony ethics violation for a public official or a public employee to use their office or position for material or personal gain.
It is also illegal for a public official or public employee to use office equipment or facilities for personal use.
Soliciting a thing of value from a person that the public official or public employee regulates or inspects is also a felony ethics offense under existing law.
The law also prohibits a member of a legislative body from voting on legislation with which the member has a conflict of interest and prevents a member of the Legislature from acting as a lobbyist before an executive department or agency.
SB230 moves all of the above offenses from under the ethics statute and places them in the criminal code, which means local district attorneys would be responsible for investigating and prosecuting these crimes.
How is this a problem?
Anyone with even a modest understanding of a district attorney’s office knows that they are generally understaffed and lack the resources to execute wide-ranging investigations into public corruption. District attorneys — being elected officials — are reluctant to seek an indictment of a local public official given the political nature of the office.
Example: Then-Speaker of the House Republican Mike Hubbard was investigated by a special unit of the attorney general’s office. The investigation, trial and conviction took nearly three years to reach a guilty verdict. It required thousands of staff hours and over a million dollars to prosecute. Even now, almost three years since his conviction, Hubbard’s case remains under appeal.
Imagine if the charges against Hubbard had to be presented by his county district attorney. Is there a rational belief that a Lee County district attorney would have had the workforce, financial resources or political will to prosecute someone as powerful and as locally popular as Hubbard?
SB230 places the burden on local district attorneys, which means, in essence, no influential political figure will ever be prosecuted. Even if a district attorney wanted to mount such a case, SB230 prohibits the district attorney from soliciting help from the Ethics Commission or the attorney general.
Removing the attorney general from the process
Since 1973, the state ethics code allowed for the Ethics Commission to refer cases to a district attorney or the attorney general’s office. Under the new law, they are not allowed to refer cases to the attorney general. But this is a moot point since the Ethics Commission will no longer have purview over such public corruption violations.
The attorney general is only mentioned three times in SB230. In SB230, the attorney general must approve any outside legal counsel hires for the commission, any material sent to the attorney general by the commission is subject to the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and district attorneys may request any previous opinions or material related to a case the district attorney is prosecuting. Again, it doesn’t allow a local district attorney to seek help from the AG in a public corruption case.
All felony violations of the state’s current ethics laws will now be placed in the criminal code outside the reach of the Ethics Commission and the attorney general with a few exceptions. Any violations are to be prosecuted by local district attorneys. The attorney general could, under his or her constitutional authority, take a case from a district attorney, but this would be extraordinary.
What happens to the Ethics Commission?
If SB230 is signed into law, the Ethics Commission will primarily be a repository of records. It will have jurisdiction over some misdemeanor offenses and some campaign violations, but mainly, it will determine civil penalties and keep filings of statements of economic interests, lobbyist registration and reported gifts, loans and other things of value from lobbyists and principals to public officials.
Unlimited giving to public officials.
Current law bans any gifts from lobbyists and principals to public officials over $25. Under SB230, that ban is lifted, allowing a lobbyist or a principal to give unlimited gifts, loans or other things of value to a public official or their family.
The only requirement is that a lobbyist or principal must report in writing the gift, loan or other things of value to the Ethics Commission.
There is a $5,000 fine for a failure to report things given.
SB230 does not require a public official to report any gift, loan or other things of value to the Ethics Commission.
Example: The new law would allow a lobbyist to open an account at a high-end clothing store or cafe and list the public official as someone who could use their account. A public official could then buy suits and shoes, enjoy lavish dinners and more at the lobbyist’s expense. The only requirement would be that the lobbyist submits a report to the Ethics Commission.
Would the commission review every report? How could the public become aware of such gifts? And if a lobbyist failed to report, how would anyone know?
There is a section in SB230 that makes certain gift-giving illegal. The catch is that law enforcement would need to prove criminal intent.
SB230 makes a bribe under $6,000 a misdemeanor. The same is true of theft of government funds or property less than $6,000. So even if law enforcement proves intent, the punishment is minor.
Who is a principal?
After Hubbard’s conviction, a full-throttle effort was made to say that the law that determined a principal was vague. Republican leadership in both the House and Senate said a primary need for a new ethics bill was to define who was and who was not a principal more clearly.
SB230 doesn’t really change the definition of a principal, but it does shift the burden of a principal. Again, it is a moot argument because other sections allow broad latitude for a principal to interact with public officials, offering gifts and promises of future gains such as employment.
The new ethics law would allow a company to designate any member of the organization as the principal. Even if the principal in this case, say a secretary, was found guilty of committing a crime. The individual cannot be held criminally liable. The burden of the offense is placed on the corporation.
Example: In Hubbard’s case, he was convicted for asking for and receiving a thing of value from a principal. The current law states that a principal can’t give a thing of value to a public official. Because the principals were subject to being charged under the same felony ethics statute, they cooperated with prosecutors in Hubbard’s case. Under the new law, these individuals could not be persuaded to testify against Hubbard because they would not be personally liable.
So the dire need to define a principal resulted in a principal being anyone the company says it is, and even if the principal commits a crime, only the company is held accountable. A company cannot be sent to prison or forced to testify.
Among the many changes in SB230, any lobbying efforts before the executive branch no longer require an individual to register as a lobbyist.
A lawmaker or any individual can ask the governor for things and not be restricted in those requests.
Example: Hubbard lobbied then-Gov. Robert Bentley for $20 million in workforce training and support for one of his clients. Bentley wasn’t aware Hubbard was being paid for his efforts and agreed to the arrangement. Hubbard was convicted for soliciting things on his client’s behalf. SB230 would remove such restrictions.
Lobbying now only applies to those asking for things from the Legislature, meaning requesting anything from the governor or state agencies doesn’t demand an individual register as a lobbyist.
During the 2010 special session where Republican lawmakers passed sweeping, hard-nosed ethics reform, a substitute bill was offered that would have allowed many of the things now proposed under SB230. Fresh off their election, promising a crackdown on 136 years of Democrat corruption, the measure was quickly voted down.
The experts APR interviewed for this brief analysis agree that SB230 guts the current ethics laws and plunges the state into a more precarious situation where it will be perceived as a place where businesses must engage in pay-to-play.
Alabama has a history rife with public corruption and is routinely labeled one of the most lawless states in the nation.
SB230 places fewer restrictions on public officials than the law that proceeded the 2010 reforms.
Al.com’s Kyle Whitmire and APR‘s Josh Moon have both offered compelling reporting on SB230 and are recommended for further reading.
Over the last several legislative sessions, ethics clarification bills were offered by the state’s attorney general. Former prosecutor Matt Hart oversaw the 2017 proposed measure.
Those bills were rejected because they kept the strict language championed by Republicans in 2010.
APR‘s analysis based on hours of conversation with respected experts concludes that SB230 must be rejected by the state Legislature.
Opinion | Take action, lead
My wife and I lived in New York City on 9/11 and heard the first plane roar overhead before crashing into tower one of the World Trade Center. That act of terror was swift, startling and violent.
COVID-19 is a slow-burning fire consuming resources, businesses and most terribly, lives.
Any reasonable person knows that now is a time to take decisive actions, big and small.
In the days following the attacks of 9/11, our leaders followed a steady drumbeat to war, a war that still lingers.
Today, there is no one to battle except the virus itself, and anyone with eyes to see and a mind to reason understands that our nation and state were ill-prepared to lead the charge.
This doesn’t mean that government leaders aren’t trying; it simply means at varying levels they were not ready.
In the aftermath of 9/11, some excused the government’s ineptitude to detect the plot against the United States as a failure of imagination.
But a few weeks after the terrorist attack, I met with a top insurance executive who said that their company had gamed out a scenario where two fully fuel 747s would be highjacked and crashed into each other over the island of Manhattan setting the entire city ablaze.
It was not a failure of imagination, just as the coronavirus outbreak isn’t either. In both cases, it was inaction.
Winston Churchill said, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” Our leaders have been slow to act. He also said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
So it is again, there is nothing new under the sun.
It’s easy to sit back and critique, second guess and rattle off to anyone who will listen to how you would have done it differently. Armchair pundits and Monday morning quarterbacks are always in abundance.
Leadership is rare and only in times of real human crisis do we see who is up for the challenge.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961. “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Alabamians may not know how to shelter-in-place, but we do know how to hunker down for a spell.
What we don’t do very well is nothing.
At APR, we are busier than ever trying to inform the public on the ever-expanding calamity accurately. We neither seek to sensationalize or trivialize the news.
Daily, my concern is for the people of our state, the human toll this crisis will reap.
Yes, the economy is essential, but jobs and businesses can be replaced. Who can replace a human life?
No one knows when this pandemic will subside or what cost we will pay for early missteps, but every life saved is a victory and every life lost should weigh heavily on our souls.
The Biblical account of Job is rich in its instruction about loss and suffering. Job’s family, home, and business were all destroyed, but afterward, they were restored by a devine second chance.
And what did Job do to break the chain of misfortune?
“And the LORD restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends. Indeed the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” KJV Job 42:10.
If you don’t pray, think about your friends and wish for their well-being.
All across our state, prayers and well wishes I’m sure are raining down.
We are all in the midst of a potential catastrophe of unknown proportions.
Yes, the government can do more and they must, but each of us should do what we can to help others as well. We must all lead in our own way.
The people of our nation and state are rising to the occasion, but still, many are in denial and they are adding to the problem.
Leadership is not an elected or appointed position; it is a choice; leaders stand up and lead.
Opinion | Have hope
Healthcare professionals and scientists seem to indicate that we are closer to the beginning of the COVID-19 calamity than at the middle or the end.
But even in times of real human crisis, hope isn’t dead but remains a vital thread in the fabric of what we know as the human spirit.
In his eighth State of the Union address in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”
This is part of the message Roosevelt relayed to the American people as he prepared the nation to enter World War II.
Across the nation and here in Alabama, everyone is experiencing disruption to daily life.
Worry, doubt and fear is everywhere as minute-by-minute bad news rolls in like a spring deluge.
“Hope Springs Eternal,” is a phrase from the Alexander Pope poem An Essay on Man in which he wrote:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
“Hope is, of course, the belief one holds during difficult circumstances that things will get better,” writes Saul Levine M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego in Psychology Today. “It is unique to our species because it requires words and thoughts to contemplate possible future events.”
Dr. Levine concludes that hope is the very nature of the optimism that drives us to work toward overcoming.
“It has religious meaning for believers in God, who through prayer trust that their future will be protected by their Deity,” said Levine. “But the presence of hope is secular and universal, and serves as a personal beacon, much like a lighthouse beckoning us during periods of darkness and stormy seas.”
There is a reason for alarm as the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven, ineffectual and at times bordering on dereliction of its duty.
For years, there has been a movement to shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. The response by the federal government to the COVID-19 outbreak is a manifestation of that thinking.
Except for Gov. Kay Ivey, most state officials have remained near mute or totally silent during the crisis. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth has offered encouragement. Still, others seem to be in hiding except for a few Republicans who have sought to politicize the moment by criticizing U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
These times call for decisive leadership, frank words about the realities facing our State but not political pandering.
Diseases like COVID-19 are not partisan, seeing neither Democrat or Republican. The State’s political leaders—the real ones—need to offer solutions, not partisan finger pointing.
Gov. Kay Ivey and her staff are doing their best, Press Secretary Gina Maiola is keeping the press informed almost hourly, likewise Communications Director Leah Garner is guiding the governor’s message so that the public is informed. Health officer, Dr. Scott Harris’, briefings are realistic, sobering and needed. Ivey’s chief of staff, Jo Bonner, is a steady hand quietly and methodically aiding the governor and the various agencies who need support.
There have been missteps and blunders, but the governor’s office is meeting a Herculean challenge with calm and efficiency.
If good intentions and best efforts are worth anything, if giving it one’s all is the best any of us can do, then Gov. Ivey and her staff deserve appreciation.
The situations in the State will worsen before it is better.
No one knows how long COVID-19 will plague our State, but be assured that hope and faith beat worry and fear every time.
In what has become known as the “Four Freedoms Speech,” FDR also had a message for the world. “Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” are entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Our present danger will pass and we will once again need to work to preserve the four freedoms that FDR spoke about so many years ago.
Hope is one of our greatest assets in times like these. Please remain safe, have courage and believe that better days are ahead.
Analysis | Alabama Power is keeping the lights on for everyone, that’s not enough for some
Alabama Power Company last week announced that it had not and would not disconnect any of its utility customers during the COVID-19 crisis. That commitment was not enough for the environmental group GASP or Energy Alabama.
That was the simple story I was writing when the absurdity of the situation dawned on me.
This is no time to politicize a crisis.
The hardworking women and men at Alabama Power are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battlefield making sure the citizens and businesses of the state have reliable energy despite the dangers posed by the coronavirus virus.
Since the Governor’s emergency declaration Alabama Power has determined that there would be no disconnects and no late fees.
“We have not terminated service for any customer since the declaration of emergency by the state,” wrote APCO spokesperson Michael Sznajderman to APR. “It has been our policy since that declaration that no customer financially affected by this health crisis will experience a service interruption.”
But GASP and Energy Alabama want Alabama Power to do more for customers impacted by COVID-19. Alabama Power has said it will work with each customer who has been affected by the crisis with no disruption of service and no late fees.
But again, that is not enough for GASP and Energy Alabama.
Electrical power is an essential resource, so is food and gasoline, but no one is demanding that Publix or Exxon-Mobile provide groceries and fuel without payment. And neither has a food chain or filling station offered a free supply of gas or groceries until the end of this critical period.
For any individual or group to demand free gas and food would be seen as absurd, but somehow utilities should shoulder the burden, and they do.
For those who cannot pay their utility bills, Alabama Power is giving what amounts to an interest-free loan.
Credit card companies are still charging interests and late fees and no customers are being able to spend without limits, but that is what Alabama Power is doing for its customers.
However well-meaning these demands being made by GASP and Energy Alabama are, they seem to be more political than practical.
But Alabama Power has been a target of political grandstanding since Gov. George C. Wallace determined that racist rhetoric wasn’t enough to win every election and he needed a “cause” to fight for the common man. Wallace vilified Alabama Power for political gain, nearly bankrupting the company along the way.
All good populist crusades need a villain to rail against, synthesizing the fight to a David versus Goliath trial with the populist as the champion.
Of course, most times when a journalist slams Alabama Power, the left cheers, but if anyone dares to point out facts that might agree with the utilities company’s position, they must be on the take.
How silly and cynical is the world of politics where everything is conspiratorial and everyone is getting paid?
At APR, we present arguments left, right and center and when we see injustice or absurdities, we are not afraid to speak.
Alabama Power is a big company that employs thousands of Alabamians and for decades, it has been the foil of politicians, environmentalists and others.
Right now, Alabama Power’s employees are working tirelessly to keep the lights on for every citizen and business in the state.
Now is not a time for political grandstanding or seeking a fight where none truly exists.
Alabama Power has said it will not disconnect any customer or charge late fees and will work with those who need help once the crisis passes.
For now, “Always on” is a reassurance to every citizen who is out of work or struggling to make ends meet in this challenging time.
GASP and Energy Alabama may have a role to play, but during these trying times, we are better if we work together for our community and not our political causes.
Since publishing this article Alabama Power issued a more definitive statement view here.
Opinion | Stay calm, stop hoarding
Grocery shelves are empty, no milk, toilet paper or eggs, and even grass-fed beef that sells for nine-dollars a pound is gone.
But that’s not because there’s a lack of food, it’s because people are making panic-purchases and hoarding.
We are better than that.
“There’s plenty of food and plenty of things in the supply chain,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “And as long as customers just buy what they need and don’t hoard, there will be no problems at all – there’s plenty of food in the supply chain.”
Earlier this week, State Health Officer Scott Harris also urged Alabamians not to panic buy.
“First of all, just remember to be prepared, but there’s no advantage to being over-prepared,” he said. “There is no shortage of food. There’s no shortage of things other than temporarily for paper products, as we all know about, but we have no concerns or issues that people won’t be able to access food if they need it. I would say in any type of closure activity throughout the world grocery stores have been exempted from that. And it would be no different, in this state as well. Grocery stores have to remain open because people have to be able to access that food.”
While self-preservation is a basic human instinct, this is not a time to return to our baser nature.
But now is a time for those who profess faith to remember the words of the psalmist who said, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.”
There is food, but those who choose to purchase mass quantities of unneeded food and supplies are making it difficult for everyone who is on a tight budget or practicing restraint. There is no reason for anyone to buy more than they need, to do so is to ignore the idea of shared responsibility and community.
Grocery store workers are putting themselves on the frontline of the COVID-19 battle by assisting customers, stocking shelves and cleaning the facilities, a thankless job for the wages they earn. Over-buying places a heavier burden on those workers and also threatens their well-being while taxing the entire food pipeline.
Hoarding may help one family, but it will hurt many others. This is not the way Americans and Alabamians should behave.
Even in a time of social distancing, every citizen should remember they are apart of a broader community and not an island unto themselves.
Total stocks of chicken were up 12 percent from last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Frozen pork supplies are 11 percent higher than last year and shares of pork bellies were up 32 percent from last January. There is plenty of American and Swiss cheese, but its caught in a supply chain that didn’t anticipate people losing their minds.
For example, total red meat supplies in freezers were up 5 percent from the previous month and up 3 percent from last year according to the USDA, but still, the meat aisles are empty because some people are buying more than they need.
Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., has hired more than 2,000 workers in the last week to keep up with increased demand from the COVID-19 outbreak.
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is hiring 100,000 new workers to keep up with demand, especially for basics, like food and household supplies.
Kroger and Amazon are just two examples of companies stepping up, so that essential needs are being met.
Not hoarding is a way of respecting our neighbors and those who work in warehouses and grocery stores.
Indeed, it can feel like a gripping moment of uncertainty. Doing things that makes us feel safe is reasonable enough, but when it causes us to forget that we are all in this together, it leaves us all more vulnerable.
Self-sacrifice, a sense of shared burden, is the hallmark of a great society.
Anxiety, panic and fear are soul killers diminishing our ability to function much less contribute our talents and labor for the greater good.
We are better than our fears, so we can ride out this present storm with hope for tomorrow because tomorrow will surely come. In the meantime, stay calm and stop hoarding.
Jefferson County Health Department: Nursing homes can take in COVID-19 positive residents
UAB launches symptom tracker to identify COVID-19 hot spots in Deep South
As cases surpass 1,100 in Alabama, still no “stay-at-home” order
The behind-the-scenes efforts to combat COVID-19
More than 200 people hospitalized with confirmed, suspected COVID-19
Opinion | A little effort can make a big difference in the fight against COVID-19
Alabama Legislature meets under heightened health concerns
Department of Labor closed Birmingham unemployment office as COVID-19 spread
Over the last week, COVID-19 cases in Alabama increased faster than 40 other states
Montgomery’s Jackson Hospital near breaking point with COVID-19 patients, ER staff say
Lieutenant governor criticizes state’s lack of preparation, response to COVID-19
45 COVID-19 cases hospitalized at UAB, 18 on ventilators
Opinion | The conservative scam has been exposed
Growth of Alabama COVID-19 cases looks a lot like Louisiana. That should worry us
Byrne votes against coronavirus response bill
Huntsville man awaits coronavirus results, says doctor struggled to find lab to test
Health3 days ago
Over the last week, COVID-19 cases in Alabama increased faster than 40 other states
Health4 days ago
Five patients with COVID-19 have died at EAMC hospital in Opelika
Health4 days ago
Alabama nursing homes seeing increase in COVID-19 cases
Health18 hours ago
More than 200 people hospitalized with confirmed, suspected COVID-19