There is currently a push to overhaul the 2010 ethics code, once hailed by Republicans as the “toughest ethics laws” in the country. Such movements, spearheaded by various lawmakers over the past years, have claimed positive reforms, but in reality, they dilute these laws, making them weaker and less enforceable.
State Rep. Matt Simpson and his committee are the latest in line to attempt a rewrite. While there is a legitimate need to clarify and strengthen the law, the direction of these efforts should not move toward weakening the law to the brink of sanctioning what can only be termed “legal corruption.”
Legal corruption refers to acts any reasonable person would deem wrong but are not punishable as crimes due to legal loopholes. An example that stands out is the issue of lawmakers receiving unlimited gifts from lobbyists. For a legislator earning nearly $50,000 annually for a part-time role, the ethical implications of accepting such gifts are profound. It begs the question: are they serving the people or succumbing to the allure of special interests?
The stark contrast with federal standards is notable. No member of the U.S. Congress is allowed to receive such benefits. Why then should Alabama’s representatives and senators be exempt from similar ethical boundaries?
Recent attempts to rewrite the ethics code have only furthered concerns about its dilution. In 2020, then-Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, proposed legislation that would significantly weaken the State Ethics Act, undermining its effectiveness in regulating the conduct of public officials. Ball’s own testimony in the pre-trial hearing of then-Speaker Mike Hubbard in 2015 hinted at this agenda, seeking amendments to the ethics laws to prevent prosecutions like Hubbard’s.
Ball’s bill would have effectively neutered the law. It proposes subtle changes in enforcement and trial processes that, though seemingly harmless, could open floodgates for the very corruption the Republicans promised to eradicate in 2010. The bill would have also stripped the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute any ethics law violations without prior approval from the State Ethics Commission. This is a body that has shown a tendency to bend decisions based on political winds, raising serious questions about its impartiality.
Moreover, loopholes in the proposed legislation were alarming. They could allow a legislator to be employed by a governmental economic development entity and vote on bills affecting their client. Out-of-state junkets and other questionable perks also made a return.
2019 saw a similar bill by State Senator Greg Albritton, aiming to gut the current ethics laws. The current law classifies using one’s office for personal gain as a felony ethics violation. It prohibits public officials from using office equipment for personal use and bars them from soliciting gifts from regulated or inspected entities. However, the proposed legislation would have moved these offenses to the criminal code, making them the responsibility of local district attorneys. This shift is problematic, given the limited resources and potential political conflicts at the local DA level.
Consider the Mike Hubbard case. Investigated by a special unit of the attorney general’s office, the case took three years and significant resources to reach a verdict. If such charges had fallen to a local district attorney, it’s doubtful whether a similar outcome would have been possible, given the political and resource constraints.
The proposed changes to the Ethics Commission’s role were equally concerning. It would have been relegated to a mere repository of records, overseeing some misdemeanors and campaign violations but largely detached from significant ethical oversight.
The lifting of the ban on gifts over $25 from lobbyists and principals to public officials under the suggested laws was alarming. It would have allowed unlimited gifts, loans, or other benefits to public officials and their families, with minimal reporting requirements and negligible oversight.
The proposed bills would have also diluted the definition of a ‘principal’, a key factor in the Hubbard case, and reduced the severity of bribery and theft of government funds or property under $6,000 to a misdemeanor. This reclassification would have significantly weakened the deterrent against unethical behavior.
Lobbying regulations would have also been relaxed, particularly regarding executive branch interactions, further eroding ethical standards.
Looking back, the 2010 ethics reform, passed by Republican lawmakers, marked a strong stand against corruption. Unfortunately, the current trajectory, as evidenced in 2019 and 2020, suggests a regression to more lenient standards that favor political and personal gains over public trust and integrity.
The stark contrast between the proposed revisions and former prosecutor Matt Hart’s 2017 measure, which maintained the 2010 law’s strict language but was rejected, highlights a worrying shift in priorities. Alabama, already burdened with a history of public corruption, risks further tarnishing its reputation and trust in its public institutions.
Past movements to rewrite Alabama’s ethics laws were misguided ventures that threatened to legalize questionable practices under the guise of legislative reform. The legislature must not take a step backward, undermining the very principles of transparency and accountability that are fundamental to a healthy, democratic society. The legislature must show a righteous resolve to be committed to tough ethics laws that give the people they serve confidence that their lawmakers are not corrupt or corruptible.