Alabama Politicians Want to Exempt Themselves From Ethics Laws

Lawmakers could get immunity from crimes if they ask for "informal opinions" first.


John Archibald of The Birmingham News/ 

Alabma Ethics Law
Dreamstime/Anthony Furgison

wrote a scathing column about a bill recently introduced into the Alabama legislature which he described as the "systematic dismantling of the ethics law."

SB 279, introduced by Republican State Senator Gerald Dial, includes provisions which grant immunity to lawmakers and state employees who seek an "informal opinon" from the Ethics Commission, even if the question posed is patently unethical. As Archibald puts it:

So if a lawyer at the Ethics Commission decides, say, that lobbying the governor is not illegal, even though the law says it is, the person who lobbied the governor gets a Don't Go to Jail card.

Thanks for asking. And go in peace.

But that's not even the worst of it. Not really. The bill – they ought to call it the Mark Twain Bill because it proves old Mark's adage that nothing and no one is safe when the Legislature is in session – would also make corrupt public officials almost untouchable to state prosecutors.

It says the Attorney General's office and county district attorneys' offices can no longer step up and step in to investigate violations of the ethics law.

Archibald says the bill is expressly designed to benefit Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, currently under indictment on multiple ethics charges. Sen. Dial has vigorously denied any implications that the bill is designed to help Hubbard introduce reasonable doubt into his trial defense, telling

I respect our judicial process and trust those who perform those duties to comply with laws already passed by our legislative process, proposed bills would never be retroactive and to imply that proposed legislation would cause benefit or harm any case is simply untrue.

Read the whole bill in question here

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  1. OT: Guess who said this

    “I’m so sorry I couldn’t wipe him out and sent [sic] him packing to Satan’s lake of fire.”

      1. Winner! No, actually another crazy criminal.

          1. Johnny Fuckerfaster?

    1. So I guess you don’t mess around with Jim Slim.

      1. Winner.

        Mark ‘Slim’ Daniels, after he assaulted James Holmes in prison.

  2. Alabama values.

    1. Forget it, Anthony. It’s Bamatown.

    2. why should IL and LA have all the fun?

      1. Because IL and LA did it first.
        Consider it a finder fee.

  3. Meanwhile, in Chicago politics…

  4. Hillary already has; talk to her.

  5. Alabama Politicians Want to Exempt Themselves From Ethics Laws

    Fixed for accuracy. Pols in Alabama are just being honest about it.

  6. First, it would allow politicians or public workers to go to the Ethics Commission director or its lawyers and ask for an informal opinion about an ethics question. Like, say, “Can I take bags of money from a guy who wants a law passed about pharmaceuticals.”

    Under the bill those “informal” opinions would give actual immunity to the person who asked.

    I’ve been busy today actually, you know, working… and I’m trying to wrap my head around this.

    If I go to the ethics commission and I ask if buying a burrito for a colleague who also happens to be running for re-election is an ethics violation, and the commission says “No, that would be fine”, then it turns out later it is a technical violation, under current law I can go to jail because the commission told me wrong?

    1. Can I pit this another way?

      I go to the IRS and ask if such-and-such a writeoff is legal. The IRS agent says, “Yeah”, so I do the writeoff, then it turns out the writeoff was in violation of IRS rules, I can be fined (or jailed).

      1. Yes, expecting the IRS answer line to give you accurate information is a bad idea.

        Even if you do get an answer to your question, it may not be right. In past years, the answers IRS telephone assistors have provided have been found to be wrong as much as 39% of the time.

        Also, always remember that you can’t legally rely on oral technical assistance that you receive from IRS employees. Treasury Regulation Section 601.201(k)(2) provides that “such oral advice is advisory only and the Service is not bound to recognize it in the examination of the taxpayer’s return.” Thus, neither the IRS nor courts will excuse you if you underpaid your taxes or otherwise make a mistake because you got a wrong answer over the phone.

        In one case, for example, taxpayers called the IRS helpline and asked whether they could withdraw funds from their IRA penalty-free to buy a home. The IRS employee said they could and they made the withdrawal. The answer was wrong, but the IRS and Tax Court made the taxpayers pay penalty taxes on the withdrawal anyway. (Clarke v. Comm’r, 68 T.C.M. 392 (1994).)

        1. Right… so can we conclude that asking the fricking Ethics lawyer is a no-go and burn the ethics department down and start anew?

          While I appreciate our stalwart reporter’s angry column on this story, the useless ethics committee is at least 50% of the angle here.

        2. By the way before we got married, my wife and I went down to the local INS office and talked with them about how we should handle filing paperwork if we were getting married over seas.

          We followed their advice and when we showed up to do one of the interviews, they informed us that we had committed visa fraud and we would have to pay $100 to file a waiver to get back in their good graces.

          The guy who rung us up for the violation in the interview was the same guy who gave us the advice. He also had the waiver typed up and ready to go as soon as we came into the interview room. When I said we were following his advice, he smugly informed us that he would never advise anyone to break the law.

          Fuck I was pissed. Still makes me mad to think of it.

          1. Tell me you didn’t pay that $100 in cash.

      2. There is a doctrine called “estoppel” that allows you to argue (its not guaranteed) that if you asked someone in an agency who should be in a position to know if you can do X, and you do exactly X, you shouldn’t be prosecuted for it if X turns out to be illegal.

    2. It does sound weird all the way around. An elected govt official, is asking an unelected govt official for an “informal” opinion about the legality of a certain action. Part of me wants to yell at the legislator “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, as our cop friends like to say. But then, that applies equally to the Ethics Commission who may have steered somebody wrong.
      So do we hate the dirty legislator who is trying to get away with something? Or the incompetent ethics commissioner for being stupid enough not to know the laws with which he is supposed to be dealing?

      1. The “bags of money” hypothetical is nice and breezy, because it seems obvious. But if you’ve ever dealt with an “ethics department” there can be all kinds of actions and activities which aren’t immediately obvious to people who may be unfamiliar with the business being done. I don’t know enough about Alabama’s particular reasoning to pass this law, but as I note downthread, they may have a bigger problem with their ethics commission, especially if the goddamned lawyers they have who are there to GUIDE THE ETHICS PROCESS are telling pols that taking bags of money is A-OK.

        this to me is really little different than HIPAA law and regulations. There are all kinds of seemingly innocuous things that you can do which can get you into serious legal hot water, or fired from your job at minimum. If you work in healthcare, you have this thing called a HIPAA Privacy Officer who’s supposed to guide the operation and employees into making sure they’re compliant. If I’d have gone to my HIPAA privacy officer, asked him/her for an opinion, and she’s have steered me wrong which resulted in me getting terminated… I think I might ask that if the HIPAA privacy officer gives you the go-ahead, you should have some sort of qualified protection.

  7. I honestly don’t know anything about the specifics of those involved in Alabama politicians. But this sure does sound dirty.
    Having said that, I am not sure how this particular law would help Hubbard. Is there something here that would act proactively? I can’t seem to find any “justification” from Dial about why he is doing this. Just that he isn’t doing it to help Hubbard, and is getting input blah blah blah.

    1. IF [ACTOR=a_politician]
      THEN [ACTION=dirty]

      1. :BEGIN
        IF [ACTOR=a_politician]
        GOTO BEGIN}


  8. if it worked like a normal bureaucracy the answer to every question would be “no you can’t do that”, but we know it won’t be like that. it will be the most permissive bureaucracy ever devised by man.

  9. So if a lawyer at the Ethics Commission decides, say, that lobbying the governor is not illegal, even though the law says it is, the person who lobbied the governor gets a Don’t Go to Jail card.

    This is all beginning to sound like there might be a problem with the Ethics commission.

    1. You’ve gotta ask yourself:

      What sort of person gets appointed to an ethics commission?

      1. According to this article, Ethics Lawyers who say it’s A-OK to take bags of money. It sounds to me like Alabama’s Ethics commission is ipso facto unethical.

  10. My favorite part about Not Mississippi is the fact that women need to go to a doctor and get a prescription for dongs.

    Whistlin’ Dongxie

    “I recommend the Tyrone model. I realize I prescribed your mother the Barbarian XL, but that is only because of childbirth and improper stitching. The Tyrone model should meet all your needs.”

    1. Yet we expect reliable ethics decisions to come from this place.

    2. he fact that women need to go to a doctor and get a prescription for dongs

      Not actually true. When you purchase one here, you sign a form that says you’re getting it for a medical reason.

  11. RE: Alabama Politicians Want to Exempt Themselves From Ethics Laws

    What? Republican and Democrats want to exempt themselves from ethic laws?
    I”m shocked, I tell you, shocked!
    Who would’ve thought a bunch of politicians and lawyers would dream of doing this?
    What next?
    Socialized medicine in the United States?

  12. What the fuck is the point to having an ethics commission if you cannot rely on its opinions? If the ethics commission is issuing stupid opinions, perhaps it’s time to do some housecleaning at the commission?

    That said, the second portion of the law is vastly more corrupt: if the AG and DAs can’t prosecute ethics violations, who exactly can? That’s just asking for the feds to come in an indict every member of a soon-to-be hopelessly-corrupt legislature.

    1. Its actually quite typical. If they say you can’t do something, you better take that as gospel. If they say you can, well, maybe they won’t come after you unless you qualify for estoppel (which is harder than it sounds).

      Basically, heads they win, tails they flip again. This is a surprise?

  13. I think I’d actually be okay with this — provided that citizens would then enjoy immunity for woodchippering these pols after an informal discussion was first held for each designated chippee. *Note to lurking US attorneys: the above is a JOKE*

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