Councilman Ben Little filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission on March 25 against Circuit Judge Joel Laird, stating he has not paid certain sales taxes and alleging he has committed various misdemeanor crimes during his tenure on the bench, including failure to file campaign contribution reports and ethics reports on his outside income and properties.
Little requested Laird be removed from office or at least receive a public reprimand, even though the two-year statute of limitations had expired on filing criminal charges for the alleged finance and ethics reports crimes.
“But convicted or not, I believe Judge Laird has committed crimes while sitting on the bench passing judgment on others,” Little said in the complaint. “These criminal offenses should disqualify Judge Laird from sitting as a judge.”
Ethics Commission attorney Hugh Evans said his organization could not comment on the complaint.
“We cannot comment on a complaint or confirm or deny a complaint has been filed,” Evans said.
According to the Alabama Ethics Law, if the commission were to find that Laird violated a law, it could not remove him from office. Instead, it would forward the case to the district attorney in the county where the act is alleged to have occurred, or to the attorney general. In all matters that come before the commission, the laws of due process apply.
During a brief phone interview Tuesday, Little declined to comment about the complaint.
“I don’t want to discuss that right now,” he said.
Efforts to reach Laird were unsuccessful.
The taxes Little referred to in the complaint include more than $16,000 in sales taxes owed to Anniston by the Courthouse Café, which Laird leases. The taxes were due between 2005 and 2007. Laird faces several tax liens as a result of the delinquencies.
In a previous article, Laird’s accountant, Mike Askew, said the $16,000 is inaccurate, noting the café was closed during much of the time between 2005 and 2007 and therefore could not collect any sales taxes.
Askew said the other delinquent state tax notices levied against the business, the most recent of which are from 2009, were accrued by Laird’s business partner and some of the café’s former managers.
The café has been closed since December 2009.
Little noted in his complaint that many of the delinquencies occurred around the time when Laird wrote an order that dissolved the Joint Powers Authority, which oversaw the development of McClellan.
Little has openly opposed that action and has filed lawsuits to get the decision overturned.
Judge John Carroll, dean for the Samford University Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, said even if a judge were convicted of a crime he or she committed while on the bench, that alone would not overturn case decisions.
“Unless the crime was somehow related to what the judge is doing in the case, I think the ruling will stand,” Carroll said. “If a judge was on the bench while dealing marijuana, it wouldn’t overturn his decisions.”
As for the campaign contribution reports, Little said in the complaint that Laird did not file them for 2003 and 2005, which, if true, is a misdemeanor offense, but cannot be prosecuted more than two years after the crime occurred.
Campaign finance records on the Alabama Secretary of State Office’s website list reports from Laird dating as far back as 1992. The site does not list reports for 2003 or 2005.
Little presented Ethics Commission records with his complaint that indicated Laird failed in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005 to file his required annual ethics report showing all his economic interests, which includes the Courthouse Café.
The Alabama Canon of Judicial Ethics states judges must annually file a “statement of economic interests” with the clerk of the Alabama Supreme Court.
The Alabama Code of Law states anyone who intentionally violates any financing disclosure filing requirements shall be subject to fines by the Ethics Commission or upon conviction, shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
But as with the financial reports, the time to prosecute the alleged ethics report violations has expired.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.