Alabama House committee mulls changes to state ethics law
2019 report recommended tighter language, graduated penalties for certain violations
Members of the House Ethics and Campaign Finance committee meet on May 31, 2023 in Montgomery during the 2023 regular legislative session. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)
A House committee Wednesday heard a presentation on a 2019 report that recommended tightening language in the state ethics’ code and introducing graduated penalties for certain violations.
Jimmy Entrekin, general counsel at the Legislative Services Agency, presented the report issued by the Code of Ethics Clarification and Reform Commission to the House Ethics and Campaign Finance Committee, established in 2018 to recommend changes to areas the commission need reform and/or clarification in the state’s Code of Ethics.
“Times change, economies change, workforce is changing – different interactions, ways people relate change,” Entrekin said, adding that it’s a good practice to routinely review “where we are and to take advantage of this commission’s work they put into it.”
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The commission met in the wake of former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s 2016 conviction and removal on felony ethics charges and focused much of its attention on the definition of “principal,” defined in the law as someone who hires a lobbyist.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, the chair of the committee, said that about 300,000 people are directly affected by these laws, which includes elected officials and public servants. The laws also apply to family members in some circumstances, which brings the number of people affected by ethics law to over a million people, he said.
“Let us see what the problems are. Let’s see what the issues are. Let’s put transparency in this. Let’s air it all out so that we can all have a discussion,” Simpson said.
The commission’s report focused on restrictions on receiving items of values, or a “gift ban”; the scope and definitions of key terms; the policies that guide the timeframe a public servant must wait to become a lobbyist, and disclosure requirements for statements of economic interests.
The report cited several issues and concerns related to the “gift ban,” including the number of exceptions allowed; vague language and a lack of distinction between actual corruption and potential corruption. Entrekin said that leads to “watered down” distinctions that allow violations without punishment.
The ”gift ban” refers to a restriction on public officials, employees and their families from soliciting or receiving gifts from lobbyists or principals. Lobbyists and principals are prohibited from offering or providing a “thing of value” to public officials, employees and their families.
The commission proposed replacing the current definition of the “gift ban” with one that has fewer exceptions and that removes the distinction between a lobbyist and a principal for meal caps.
The commission also suggested “graduated” penalties for the gift ban. For example, Entrekin said that it’s not clear if an elected official accepts a meal that goes $1 over the cap would face a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, or a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $6,000 fine.
The report also recommended that the gift ban be lifted for lobbyists, principals and public servants “who do not have interests between the same governmental body,” which Entrekin called a “forward-thinking recommendation.”
“If you’re a local official at a local county or municipal level, and that’s where your sphere of your jurisdiction, it’s your sphere of influence and authority, and you’re dealing with somebody in a municipality across the state, there was much less of a concern about the commission on that kind of situation,” Entrekin said.
The commission also looked into the definition and scope of “principals.”
“Ambiguous language – it can either be narrow or broad in scope, depending on context,” said Entrekin.
A too-broad definition might provide opportunity for bad actors to hide behind a company, whereas a too-narrow definition could criminalize more people than intended, without achieving a reduction in corruption.
Likewise, the definition and scope of “conflict of interest” was an area of focus. The commission identified two definitions for conflict of interest that were “similar but distinguishable,” and it only prohibits voting under a conflict of interest. The commission suggested replacing it with one definition and establishing a distinct and separate violation that applies to all public servants and not just legislative activity.
The commission identified two other areas of focus: “revolving door” employment issues, which refers to the practice of lawmakers and public servants leaving the public sector for lobbying positions, in which the commission did not find any issues. The last area of focus was the disclosure requirements for statements of economic interest, which Entrekin said was a separate effort spearheaded by Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
Simpson called the Wednesday meeting an educational and “working” meeting, and no action was taken before the committee meeting adjourned. Simpson said that they will come back in September to discuss which legislation has already been filed in previous sessions and discuss how the committee will move forward with proposing legislation in 2024.
Simpson said before adjourning that they can’t “just tuck their heads in the sand and say, “Hey, there’s a problem we don’t want to address anymore because we may get bad press or bad publicity from it.”
He said that they need to “take the bull by the horns” and admit there are issues with the state’s ethics laws, and that the state wants to address it.
“The report from this commission that came out talked about the numbers, the number of times that vague language is used, that we recognize that there are problems in our ethics laws,” Simpson said.
Thomas Albritton, executive director for the Alabama Ethics Commission, said that there’s a lot of recommendations to work with, and that he felt would be “productive and fruitful for this committee.”
“We stand behind the findings that are in that and look forward to working with the committee as it goes through that and decide which changes, if needed, they would like to make,” Albritton said.
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