The Alabama Ethics Commission, established by the legislature in 1973, is the state agency responsible for monitoring the ethical behavior of approximately 200,000 public officials and employees at the municipal, county, and state levels. The legislation creating the commission stated that the operation of a truly democratic government requires that public officials be independent and impartial. Therefore, no public office should be used for private gain.
Like many other states, Alabama passed into law campaign finance and ethics reforms as a result of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. The episode opened a floodgate of reform legislation at both the state and federal levels, including the establishment of the Federal Elections Commission in 1975 and passage of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the federal ethics act. In addition, state ethics laws and election reforms were adopted and revised across the country. Alabama adopted its first ethics law in 1973. Although it has been revised several times, most significantly in 1995, it stands as a strong deterrent to the use of public office or employment for personal gain.
The Ethics Commission, headquartered in Montgomery, is comprised of five members who are nominated jointly by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house and are confirmed by the state senate. Members serve five-year staggered terms, thereby losing one member each year as the newest member is confirmed. Throughout its history, the commission has been served by 36 private citizens who have—no matter their political affiliations or personal allegiances—fairly, equitably, impartially, and in an absolutely nonpartisan manner, determined the outcome of the issue at hand. These commissioners have come from all walks of life: business, labor, religion, law, medicine, education, and other professional and civic endeavors. They have oftentimes undertaken their task in the face of great adversity and have provided great service to the Ethics Commission and to the citizens of Alabama that far exceeds the compensation of $50 per bimonthly meeting.
The agency's functions fall generally into five main areas. The commission issues advisory opinions to public officials and employees and receives complaints of wrongdoing and conducts investigations into those complaints. It also receives and files some 32,000 statements of economic interest, which outline in great detail public officials' and employees' financial interests, family relationships, business connections, property holdings, consulting arrangements, and debts. In addition, the commission registers lobbyists and principals (a person or business hiring a lobbyist) and receives quarterly reports on their activities. Finally, it conducts educational seminars for political candidates, public officials, and employees on matters of ethics in government service.
In carrying out these functions, the commission renders on an annual basis, an average of 67 formal advisory opinions and 104 informal advisory opinions interpreting the ethics law. The commission receives roughly 275 to 300 complaints each year and conducts investigations as necessary to resolve the complaints. Approximately 575 lobbyists register with the commission each year, representing about 725 principals. The commission has also conducted more than 700 seminars throughout the state over the past 10 years that have been attended by more than 35,000 public officials and employees. These programs have been conducted for the governor's cabinet and staff, the legislature, and the judicial branch, as well as newly elected sheriffs, probate judges, county commissioners, and municipal officials.
The revised 1995 Ethics Law provided the agency with major new tools to perform its duties and increase its effectiveness. Among the improvements were a revolving-door provision that bars public officials from leaving office and becoming lobbyists within two years of serving, the authority to initiate its own investigations, and protections for whistle-blowers. The law also established a system for fines and restitution for minor violations among other provisions and is much more workable and understandable than its previous version, which makes the commission's job much easier.
As a result of the 1995 revisions, the state of Alabama has made considerable progress in promoting ethics in government and public service. In the fall of 2004, the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group, ranked the commission eighth in the nation for its work in providing information to the public about legislators' private income and assets and conflict of interest and financial disclosure laws. This was no small feat, and it is one in which the commission took great pride, as half of the states received failing grades and 11 states received barely passing grades. The commission viewed this national recognition as a strong validation of the state's Ethics Law.
Over the 30-plus-year history of the Ethics Commission, countless public officials and employees have run afoul of the Ethics Law. These individuals have ranged from governors, legislators, and cabinet officials to sheriffs, circuit clerks, county commissioners, and mayors, to rank-and-file city, county, and state employees. For example, former governor Guy Hunt was convicted and removed from office in 1993 for using $200,000 from his 1987 inaugural fund for his personal use. Although the verdict was upheld in state and federal appeals, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Hunt based on its belief that he was innocent. Former state treasurer Melba Till Allen was convicted in 1978 for using her public office to obtain bank loans for a personal business venture. She also failed to report the loans on her ethics financial disclosure forms and was sentenced to three years in prison. Former Public Service Commission president Juanita McDaniel was convicted in 1980 for filing false expense requests and sentenced to seven months in prison. Both Alabama State Industrial Relations Director Dottie Cieszynski and Mayor Joe Smitherman of Selma were fined for using state vehicles for personal use, and Cieszynski was also cited for having state employees carry out her personal errands. Former chairman of the Birmingham Water Board, Horace Parker, was convicted in 1998 for arranging a water main upgrade on the street on which he lived to improve the water pressure for his lawn sprinkler system. Parker also voted as a member of the Water Board to approve the work.
After more than 30 years, unethical behavior has not been eliminated, but the Ethics Law has made a real difference in how
government officials and state employees have conducted themselves serving the citizens of Alabama. Most public officials
and employees realize today that they cannot use their public office or position for their personal gain or the gain of their
family. The commission's budget is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state's General Fund Budget. The annual cost of
operating the Commission for the 200,000 covered public officials and employees is approximately $940,000 or about $4.70 per
individual. The cost per citizen is only $0.21.
Alabama Ethics Law, Section 36-25-1, et seq. Code of Alabama 1975. St. Paul, MN: West Group Publishing.
Stephens, William T. "The Alabama Ethics Cases." Cumberland Law Review 10 (Fall 1979): 317.
Sumner, James L., Jr., and Hugh R. Evans III. "The Alabama Ethics Law for Lawyers." The Alabama Lawyer 59 (March 1998): 101.
Sumner, James L., Jr. "The Alabama Ethics Law: A Retrospective." The Alabama Lawyer 60 (July 1999): 264.
———. "Double-Dipping and the Ethics Law." Alabama School Boards 25 (July/August 2004): 6.
James L. Sumner Jr.
Alabama Ethics Commission
Published May 28, 2008
Last updated January 5, 2011