‘Stars aligned’ for Alabama ethics revamp?

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On the heels of an alleged vote-buying scandal in which 11 people were indicted, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley may hold a special legislative session next month to reform the state’s ethics laws.

A parade of scandals has made ethics a perennial issue in state government there. Alabama received a “C” for its legislative financial disclosure laws in the Center’s States of Disclosure ranking, earning the No. 10 spot on the 2009 list. Twenty states received an “F” in the 2009 rankings.

While Alabama legislators are required to provide a substantial range of information – including outside employment, investments, and real property – the state lags in providing the public easy access to that information. Unlike other states that make filings readily available online, citizens in Alabama must fill out a Request for Access to Commission Records that includes personal information and identification of the records requested. Easier access to online information does not appear to be on next month’s agenda.

But Riley could address another major gap in the state’s ethics laws by granting subpoena power to the Alabama Ethics Commission. Commission director James Sumner said having such authority would make the panel’s job much easier. “We have no power to subpoena at all, and we’re very much alone in that,” he said, referring to other states that have given their ethics bodies subpoena authority. As it stands now, Alabama’s commission must rely on a person’s willingness to provide documents or testimony.

Sumner said he believes next month’s session will dramatically change the state. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a successful outcome,” he said. “The stars are aligned for this to be a successful special session.”

Additional reforms on the table include ending transfers of money between political action committees, a practice which make it difficult to pinpoint sources of funding, and proposed restrictions on expenditures by lobbyists.

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