Alabama House approves bill allowing AG to redact names in professional service contracts

Advocates concerned they reduce transparency

By: - May 9, 2023 6:01 pm
Man in blue tielooking to his left

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall prior to the State of the State address by Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Montgomery, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Two bills modifying the schedule and rules of the Contract Review Committee are provisions allowing the Alabama Attorney General’s Office to withhold information in professional service contracts.

SB 222, sponsored by Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Gurley, was passed by the House Tuesday. HB 372, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, passed committee last week. The bills include sections allowing the attorney general’s office to redact information for professional service contracts it awards to legal firms who will represent the agency in litigation.

The Senate bill was amended on the House floor Wednesday. The bill allows the attorney general to redact the names of the people on a professional service contract for litigation. But it adds language that “this subsection does not protect any information from being disclosed, as appropriate during the course of the litigation.”

The bill passed the Senate on May 2.

“It is so people wouldn’t get doxed like they were in the last go around, there was an issue that came up,” Givhan said Thursday in an interview. He did not discuss specifics.

The committee reviews contracts state agencies enter with outside attorneys, and consider the monetary among, the firm itself and the justification for the contract.

“It is not an appropriate way to respond to potential scrutiny of spending of public dollars,” said Randy Susskind, deputy director at the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for social justice issues, in an interview on Tuesday. “There is no evidence or documentation of evidence or harassment or anything. There is no basis for saying a contractor has been harassed.”

The measure blocks the public and media from knowing about the parties receiving public dollars while allowing legislators access to the information.

“I don’t think this would stop anyone from telling the legislators who the money is going to,” Susskind said. “Reporters or the public will not have access to it.”

In February, the Alabama Department of Corrections went before the Contract Review Committee with an award to YesCare, the contractor selected to provide health care to people incarcerated in prisons throughout the state.

Members of the committee raised concerns about the $1 billion contract and lawsuits the company was involved in. Much of the attention dealt with Bill Lunsford, an attorney representing the state in a lawsuit brought on by inmates against Corrections alleging it didn’t provide them with adequate mental health while incarcerated.

The new rule may make obtaining names such as Lunsford’s back to the episode in February prove more difficult moving forward.

With this set of bills in place, it leaves open the possibility of restricting the public’s access to information, which further restricts government transparency.

Givhan said “all would be disclosed at the right time.”

“It all would come out in discovery in the trial as part of the process,” Givhan said. “It just wouldn’t allow someone to be lambasted by people who did not like they were going to testify before it even came to trial.”

The question is the timing.

“Sometimes it takes years for a case to be resolved, so this is something that means there will be no public scrutiny or accountability for contracts for years,” Susskind said. “At that point it will too be late to question the contracts.”

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.