Alabama House committee takes deep dive into state ethics law
A House committee Wednesday took a deeper dive into the current ethics laws in the state as they consider potential ethics legislation for the 2024 legislative session.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R- Daphne, the chair of the House Ethics and Campaign Committee, said Wednesday they would also consider opinions from the Alabama Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.
“It would be foolish of us not to at least address, and hear and take heed of their advice, and what they have said,” Simpson said.
Jimmy Entrekin, general counsel at the Legislative Services Agency, said before his presentation to the committee that the court opinions “accentuates some of these issues.”
At the August committee meeting, Entrekin presented a 2019 report that recommended tightening language in the state ethics’ code and introducing graduated penalties for certain violations.
The report was 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 felt needed reform and/or clarification in the state’s Code of Ethics.
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 potentially affected by ethics law to over 1 million people, about 20% of the population. Alabama’s population is just over 5 million.
Simpson called the Wednesday meeting a “working” meeting, and no action was taken before the committee meeting adjourned. Simpson previously indicated they would review which legislation has already been filed in previous sessions in the Wednesday session but said they will have those discussions in October. They said the committee will also eventually discuss how they will move forward with proposing legislation in 2024.
Simpson said after the meeting that the courts specifically left some matter to the Legislature to address. He said the purpose was for the legislature to clearly define, for over 1 million Alabamians, what is legal under state ethics laws and what is not.
“What they’ve said is … if they get people that would be innocent, they don’t have a choice but to go forward and say, ‘Hey, the plain language of the statute says this is what it is,’ Simpson said. “This what you have to have.”
The 2018 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 exemptions 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 also looked into the definition and scope of “principals,” or people or businesses that employ lobbyists, and the Mike Hubbard ethics violation case’s Alabama Supreme Court’s in 2020 ruling that pointed to the lack of clarity in its definition.
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.
The definition and scope of “conflict of interest” was also 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 Court of Criminal Appeals order, which upheld 11 of the 12 counts against Hubbard in 2018, left it open to the state which definition should apply to violations, or if both should apply, but said that “employee” is not narrowly defined and could include part-time employees or contractors.
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.
After Simpson was elected to office in 2018, he said he sat through a meeting where three lawyers all gave different answers on nearly every question on what was allowed under Alabama’s ethics law. He said that was too confusing for the general public.
“We want the best of the best. Not just running for office,” he said, adding that if someone wants to be a public servant, they shouldn’t fear going to prison because they didn’t know what the laws were.
Simpson said that there’s been some action taken following the report in 2018, but he wants to do it differently by taking action in the open.
“This is the first time I’ve had a chance to take a bite at the apple, and I’m going to see what I can do,” he said.