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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

House panel to vote on ethics

The administration of Gov. Bob Riley has criticized lawmakers for their lack of action on ethics reform, but a panel plans to vote today on two bills.

The House Judiciary Committee discussed two ethics overhauls at length on Wednesday and plans to vote today. The Legislature has only five meetings days left after today.

The two bills have various proposals that would limit gifts to lawmakers, require all spending by lobbyists on public officials to be reported, require those who lobby the administration for contracts and grants to register as lobbyists, place reporting requirements on county and state prosecutors who are referred ethics cases from the Alabama Ethics Commission, and require ethics training for public officials.

Jim Sumner, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said he supports both of the bills, but said one sponsored by Rep. Mac Gipson, R-Prattville, and supported by Riley is the "gold standard."

"It has everything we could possibly want," he said. " … We have two great bills here."

With the two bills before the committee simultaneously, some lawmakers were confused at which provisions were in which one.

The chairman, Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, decided to give members a day to look at the bills and scheduled a meeting to vote at 9 a.m. today.

Gipson’s bill has a provision that would require the attorney general or a district attorney to report the disposition of a case referred to them by the ethics commission within six months. Riley has said, and lawmakers echoed Wednesday, that too many cases are going to prosecutors and no one knows the status.

Some lawmakers expressed concern on Wednesday about a provision that would require the prosecutor to disclose if any action has been taken and why. If a prosecutor closes the case, he would have to state the reasons in writing. If he did decide to pursue the case, he would have to send a status report to the commission every 180 days and then send a final report.

Sumner said it is rare they hear any report on the finality of a case that commissioners reviewed.

"It is an embarrassment," he said. "We don’t know."

State Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said having some update on the resolution is good. He said some cases are referred "never to be heard from again," which he said is not fair to the person who filed the complaint or to the public official, who has a "black could over their head."

State Rep. Charles Newton, D-Greenville, said he did not know if it was a good idea to ask prosecutors to state why they did not prosecute a case.

Some in the meeting also criticized Riley and the media for reports that lobbyists could give public officials $91,000 in gifts in a year without reporting it. Riley recently had a press conference at a local retailer in which he had merchandise behind him. He said a lobbyist could buy luggage one day, expensive champagne the next, another item the third day and continue to buy gifts of up to $250 each day of the year without reporting it.

Some legislators asked Sumner if there was a situation in which a lobbyist giving that much was possible. He said the commission interprets current law to say that public officials can accept seasonal gifts of up to $100 per occasion for up to $250 a year from a single donor.

Sumner said the law allows for hospitality and entertainment, including food and drinks, for up to three consecutive days and does not allow the practice to be continuing.

"It is our view you could never spend $91,000," he said.

Sumner said a lobbyist could not buy an official an iPod one day and a margarita mixer the next.

Bryan Taylor, policy director for Riley, said the issue is not a concern as long as the current commission staff is in place. A Riley spokesman has previously said the law does not disallow officials from taking gifts if they are not for the intent of influencing their official action.

Gipson’s bill would reduce the amount for entertainment to $50 a day with a $250 annual cap. Currently, lobbyists can spend as much as they want on entertainment and hospitality, but must begin reporting at $250 a day.

In another provision, officials would have to disclose any contracts or employment they have with entities they know or should know receive public finds.

Some lawmakers also expressed concerns that their colleagues were trying to get some ethics legislation together at the end of the session. Gipson said he has brought a bill before the committee for three years and it did not receive any traction until Riley supported it.

The second bill that will be considered today is sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood.

DeMarco and Gipson said they have worked with Sumner to try to improve their bills and give the commission the tools it needs.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the bills were becoming more and more complicated with substitutes and amendments. He said people want to pass ethics reform, but the bills will become more difficult to pass this session with more changes to them.

The committee previously passed DeMarco’s bill, but he said he made changes to try to incorporate some aspects of Gipson’s proposal and brought it back for reconsideration. DeMarco said there are very few days left in the session and he hopes people will work together to pass needed ethics reform.

Sumner said subpoena power is the single greatest tool that the commission could use. The judiciary committee passed a bill early in the session that would give the commission that power, but the bill has never been brought before the full House.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen


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Location: Montgomery, AL, United States

South Union Street is the blog of Montgomery Advertiser political reporters Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen. Always check here for the latest on the Legislature, elections and other activities and players in Alabama.

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