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Bill allows unlimited gifts to public officials

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s ethics chief and attorney general are opposing legislation that would make significant changes to the state ethics law, including allowing lobbyists to give limitless gifts to public officials.

The bill by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, would eliminate the current ban on public officials receiving gifts of monetary value and instead replace it with a requirement to report everything that is given.

The bill also would limit which family members of public officials fall under ethics law restrictions; change enforcement mechanisms and make violations of using a public office for personal gain a misdemeanor if it involved amounts less than $6,000. The bill was introduced Wednesday in the Alabama Senate and could go before the Senate Judiciary Committee in coming days.

“This bill will encourage corruption, not discourage it,” Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, who is unrelated to the bill’s sponsor, wrote in an email. “Allowing the free flow of money to elected officials from those who have official business before them is discouraged in states striving for strong government ethics,” Albritton wrote.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall also opposes the bill, spokesman Mike Lewis said. “Our office’s ability to enforce key provisions of the Ethics Act, at issue in several pending matters, would be impaired if this bill were to become law,” Lewis wrote in an email.

Greg Albritton said in a telephone interview that his intention is to make the law clearer and disputed the assertion that it would weaken the state ethics law. He said public officials are often confused about what is allowed because of ambiguities in the law.

“We are trying to get some clarity on this,” he said.

The bill would do away with limits on public officials receiving a “thing of value” from lobbyists. Public officials could receive anything, but the giver would have to file a disclosure report.

“Whatever you take has to be reported and then the constituents will decide,” the bill sponsor said.

The change, if approved, would mark a significant departure from current practice, which was adopted in a 2010 special session on ethics reform.

Currently, there is a flat ban on lawmakers taking a “thing of value” from lobbyists and their employers with exceptions for meals costing $25 or less, receptions and other exclusions. Under the bill, prosecutors would have to be able to prove a criminal intent behind a gift for a person to be convicted.

The bill also says violations involving use of public office for personal gain would be considered a misdemeanor if it involves amounts less than $6,000.

Tom Albritton said the bill would also limit the role of the Ethics Commission by taking away the ability to interpret laws and consider violations of the ethics law.

The bill also would:

— Limit the definition of lobbying.

— Narrow which family members fall under the scope of the ethics law restrictions to spouses and dependents

— Limit which officials at companies and entities are considered “principals” and fall under ethics law restrictions.

The most notable ethics case in recent years involves former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. He was convicted in 2016 of multiple violations including improperly asking lobbyists and company executives for work and investments in his printing and consulting businesses.

Hubbard is appealing his conviction, arguing those were above-board dealings and should not be considered a violation of the “thing of value” prohibition. His lawyers also argued some of the people involved shouldn’t have been considered principals.

Greg Albritton said his decision to bring the legislation is unrelated to the Hubbard case.

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