Through transfers between political action committees, money routinely flows freely into legislators’ campaign coffers with no way to identify the source. The state’s Ethics Commission has no subpoena power, rendering it virtually ineffectual.
Finding a person who does not agree reforms are needed would be a daunting task and yet, despite years of proposed legislation, a reform bill has yet to reach the governor’s desk.
But with the arrest Monday of four state senators and seven others on federal corruption charges, many political experts, legislators and candidates agree next year may be the best time ever to pass a strong reform bill.
Whether the scandal alone will be enough to force the bill’s passage or if a change in leadership will also be needed, is still up for debate.
In the view of William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, the latest scandal could finally result in Alabama ethics and campaign finance reform.
“I think if it doesn’t, I don’t know what would,” he said.
Stewart added, however, that a change in the Legislature’s makeup might also be required to successfully pass a reform bill. There has been speculation Republicans could gain more seats in both houses in the November general election.
“It wouldn’t necessarily be one factor … not just a crisis of confidence,” Stewart said. “If we have more Republicans and they ran on ethics reform, they could be obligated to do something.”
Federal agents arrested the 11 defendants, including Sen. Jim Preuitt of Talladega, on charges involving the buying of votes for pro-gambling legislation earlier this year.
Preuitt, a recent addition to the Republican party, was joined on the indictment list by two Democratic legislators and one independent.
The indictment, obtained partially through FBI wiretaps, details illegal actions allegedly committed by Preuitt, including conspiracy, bribery, extortion, honest services fraud and providing a false statement to federal agents. Campaign contributions and other things of value were promised to Preuitt and the other senators, according to prosecutors.
The pro-gambling bill, which Preuitt voted for, cleared the Senate at the end of March, after failing an early procedural vote earlier in the month. FBI agents told state leaders of their investigation the next day.
Bill Lester, political science professor at Jacksonville State University, said actions like the alleged charges are made easier due to the legality of PAC-to-PAC transfers in Alabama.
“Anytime there is no transparency in money, it sets the stage,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it will happen … but when you don’t have transparency, you are just asking for trouble.”
State Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said while none of the charges has been proven in court, the scandal itself should spur legislators to act during the next legislative session.
“I hope and pray so,” he said. “Maybe other legislators will realize we need some ethics reform.”
Wood said legislation to ban PAC-to-PAC transfers has made it out of the House for several years now, only to fail in the Senate.
“That’s because of the Democratic leadership,” he said. “I think with Republican leadership, it would be different.”
Wood’s challenger in the House Dist. 36 race, Weaver Mayor Garry Bearden, could not be reached Friday for comment.
Stewart, however, who has watched many ethics reform bills come and go during the past decade, said the failure of the bills is more likely due to the nature of the Senate itself.
“The House always passes it because they are not as dependent on PACs as senators, who have larger districts to represent and therefore their campaigns are more expensive.”
Public seeks reform
Political scientists and politicians are not the only ones concerned with ethics reform. State polls and surveys have shown the public strongly supports strengthening ethics and campaign finance laws.
According to a survey the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama conducted in 2007, more than 91 percent of those surveyed said lobbyists should be required to report all their spending on legislators. In addition, 61 percent said states should have ethics committees; 89 percent said ethics training should be required for legislators; and 89 percent said PAC-to-PAC transfers should be banned.
Lester said the scandal should force some changes and agrees with Stewart that the issue of PAC-to-PAC transfers and ethics is not confined to one party.
“(The corruption case) crossed party lines,” Lester said. “It should pull some bi-partisan efforts together.”
Natalie Davis, professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College, however, said new leadership in the Legislature in addition to public opinion about the scandal is needed for a reform bill to pass.
“By and large, leadership would have to change … and not necessarily to Republican,” Davis said.
She said leadership would have to come from the Legislature; having a new governor would not make a difference.
“The Alabama governor is really not a very powerful political figure compared to many other state governors,” Davis said. “If you want to override a governor’s veto, all you need is a majority vote. Well, you’ve already got that if you passed the bill.”
Davis was not confident, however, that passing any type of ethics reform could prevent the type of crimes alleged in the federal indictment.
“It’s possible ethics reform would not make it less likely that these indictments would happen,” she said.
Candidates support ethics reform
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he would support ethics reform legislation.
“I’ve encouraged PAC-to-PAC legislation and I will support it,” he said. “It is the right of voters to know who is supporting these candidates.”
However, Marsh was unsure if banning PAC-to-PAC transfers could prevent corruption similar to what is alleged in the gambling legislation case.
“PAC-to-PAC is legal, but it is not legal to take a bribe,” he said. “I can’t say (PAC-to-PAC) made it easier to take a bribe.”
Wallace Wyatt, Marsh’s Democratic opponent in the November election, agrees the transfers should be banned, adding he also supports giving the state Ethics Commission subpoena powers.
“I’m certainly for strong ethics,” Wyatt said. “Most other state ethics commissions have subpoena powers.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, of all the states with ethics commissions, Alabama’s is one of three that does not have subpoena power. Nine states have no type of ethics commission. Stewart said the corruption arrests point out the necessity of an ethics commission with subpoena power.
“With subpoena power, (the Ethics Commission) could have done this and we wouldn’t need the federal authorities to come in,” Stewart said. “We need to clean up our own house.”
State Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, said he wants the corruption arrests to encourage legislators to pass reforms he thinks are desperately needed.
“I don’t think you can ever completely legislate away dishonesty, but I think you can strengthen the laws,” he said. “It’s obvious there needs to be some stronger legislation passed.”
Ricky Whaley of Jacksonville, Brown’s Democratic opponent, said he wished ethics reform was not needed.
“It’s sad when you have to make folks do what is right,” he said. “But this will probably be a great time to pass legislation.”
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.