Million Alabamians subject to ethics laws

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Approximately one-fourth of Alabama’s residents are subject to the state’s ethics laws, Ethics Commission director Tom Albritton said.

The Andalusia native spoke to the local Rotary Club Tuesday.

Andalusia native Tom Albritton, current executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, greets friends at Tuesday’s Rotary meeting.

Andalusia native Tom Albritton, current executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, greets friends at Tuesday’s Rotary meeting.

“We’re responsible for every public employee, every public official, and their family members,” he said.

“To put that in context, if a mayor of a small town has a daughter graduating from college, and the mayor calls Alabama Power, who is a registered principal (i.e., hires lobbyists) and asks about a job, that can be a violation of the ethics bill.

“In a strict reading of the Code of Alabama, it says you can’t do that.”

There are 307,000 public employees in Alabama, and 70 percent of those are employed by counties and municipalities. When the families of those people, along with elected officials and their families, are considered, there are more than a million people who are subject to ethics laws in Alabama, or about a fourth of the population.

The Alabama Ethics Commission operates with a staff of 17, which includes five investigators with full subpoena power, he said.

Most people want to get things right, Albritton said.

Albritton explained that the Commission gives informal opinions to some questions, which does not give those requesting the opinion full legal protection. When he became director a year ago, he asked staff members to begin adding a disclaimer to those informal opinions.

“I thought it was just a good idea that people understood that,” he said.

Formal opinions of the commission carry with them legal protection. To get a formal opinion, a case or situation is presented to the full Ethics Commission, which takes a public vote on the issue.

Those who file complaints with the Ethics Commission must have verifiable and creditable information, Albritton said.

Those complaints are investigated, and if they appear to be valid, staff members present the complaints to commission members, who sit as a grand jury to decide if an ethics law has been broken. Ethics violations are Class B felonies and carry two to 20-year sentences.

“It is a serious body of law,” he said.

If the Ethics Commission determines ethics laws have been violated, cases are referred to the attorney general or the district attorney for prosecution.

Those who file complaints with the commission are protected, Albritton said, and complaints are kept private.

“We can’t talk about complaints,” Albritton said. “It is a felony offense if we disclose them. But if you file a complaint, it is not a felony for you to go out and have a press conference about it.

“If the Commission finds probable cause, it will announce complaints publicly.

The Ethics Commission does not accept anonymous complaints, nor do they accept complaints by telephone. Complaints may be submitted by email, or in writing.