December 22, 2010

Alabama Stiffens Its Ethics Rules! Wow! Right On... Now That's What I'm Talkin' About!!! :)

The Wall Street Journal
written by Mike Esterl
Friday December 17, 2010

Alabama lawmakers approved a major ethics overhaul promoted by Gov. Bob Riley, part of a broader push among Southern states to combat political corruption.

The overhaul package, which includes limits on lobbyists, follows federal indictments in October against four state senators in an alleged vote-buying scheme, as well as other high-profile corruption cases in recent years.

Republicans won control of Alabama's House and Senate in November elections for the first time in 136 years after campaigning to boost transparency.

In a special session that ended Thursday, the newly elected legislature granted subpoena powers to Alabama's ethics watchdog and tightened campaign-finance rules by prohibiting transfers between political action committees.

It also banned, among other measures, "pass-through-pork" projects in which lawmakers direct funds to state agencies after reaching secret deals on how the money will be spent.

Alabama has lagged behind much of the country in ethics rules for public officials, but the new laws will put it in the top half among states, according to legal experts.

Many of the most recent ethics reforms have been enacted in Southern states. Louisiana began requiring lawmakers to disclose their outside financial interests last year. Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida also have implemented more stringent rules in recent years.

Mr. Riley, the outgoing Republican governor who called the special session, said Thursday the new legislation "represents a sea change of historic proportions" for Alabama. He plans to sign the overhaul, spanning seven bills, into law in the coming days.

Democrats backed each of the bills, except for one ending automatic payroll deductions for public employee groups engaged in political activities.

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to weaken the Alabama Education Association, a powerful teacher group. Republicans passed that bill Wednesday after a lengthy filibuster.

A separate bill approved Thursday caps the amount of money lobbyists or their clients can spend entertaining a lawmaker at $150 or $250 a year, respectively.

Until now, lobbyists had been able to spend unlimited amounts of money on individual lawmakers in Alabama.

But the new legislation contains loopholes. There is no spending limit for widely attended events hosted by lobbyists. Lobbyists also won't be required to disclose what they spend on lawmakers.

Most states require greater disclosure on lobbyist spending and more than half a dozen states prohibit gifts entirely.

But lobbyists in many states can spend more heavily on individual lawmakers than Alabama will permit.

"I think the Alabama laws are a significant step forward," said Peggy Kerns, head of the ethics center at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Alabama Ethics Commission also will gain subpoena powers. Most state watchdogs already have that authority.

Federal prosecutors in October accused gambling executives and their lobbyists of offering Alabama senators money to vote for legislation that would have legalized electronic bingo in the state.

Four state senators—two Democrats, one Republican and an independent—have been indicted. A trial is scheduled for next year.

In 2006, former Gov. Don Siegelman was convicted of corruption after appointing Richard Scrushy, former chairman of HealthSouth Corp., to an Alabama regulatory board in exchange for campaign donations. Messrs. Siegelman and Scrushy have denied wrongdoing and a court is reviewing their convictions.

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