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Ethics Commission rule would stop ex parte communications

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A proposed administrative rule would prevent Alabama Ethics Commission members from discussing or receiving information about matters before them outside of official settings.

The prohibition on ex parte communications wasn’t caused by any singular event, Ethics Commission  Executive Director Tom Albritton told Alabama Daily News.

“It’s not prompted by anything except the desire for the commission’s official decisions to have credibility in the public’s mind,” Albritton said. “The idea is that the official decisions by the commission should be independent and free from outside influence except that influence that is expressed publicly in an open meeting. It’s the same idea behind why judges can’t engage in ex parte communications.” 

The proposed rule says that in the case of ex parte communications, commissioners shall publicly state, for inclusion in the official minutes of the commission, the name of the individual who initiated the communication, the date and time of the communication, the individuals involved and the subject matter discussed.

Commission Chair Charles Price said the rule will ensure that all commissioners receive the same information from commission staff.

“All the information we receive will come through the legal chain of custody,” Price said.

He’s in favor of the rule.

“I think if you’re going to serve on the Ethics Commission, you should be highly ethical yourself,” Price said.

John Plunk, a commission member from Athens, said in his more than two years on the commission, he’s never been approached by a party outside of official commission proceedings and hasn’t seen any abuse.

“I think we’re an investigative body as much as a judicial body,” Plunk said. “To prevent information from coming to a body, I don’t think that’s the right way to go,”

That information should be disclosed though to other commission members and staff, he said.

Commission Vice-Chair Beverlye Brady, an Auburn attorney, said a man once came to her law office unannounced to speak to the character of his friend who had a case before the commission.

“When I came on the commission, I was surprised they didn’t have (an ex parte rule),” she said. She also likened the proposal to rules for judges; they’re not supposed to be approached by attorneys outside of court.

Albritton said the rule is directed at contact between someone with business before the commission and the decision makers. Parties and the public can contact commission staff about cases and opinions.

“It’s not cutting off anyone’s ability to provide input,  we’re just trying to streamline the manner in which they can do that to ensure it occurs in a public meeting,” Albritton said.

A public comment period on the proposed new rule is open until Dec. 5.

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