For nearly three decades, Jim Williams applied the force of factual, objective research to the partisan, political reality of Alabama state and local governments.
So did he move that boulder of problems that Alabama governments create, deal with – or avoid?
Until last month, Williams – officially James W. Williams Jr. – had been the first and only executive director of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. PARCA, as it is known, was created by former Alabama Gov. Albert Brewer in 1988 with the mission of improving how the public’s business gets done. Williams retired at the end of September from the executive director job but will continue to do some research for the organization.
Alabama scored a D+ on its report card from the State Integrity Investigation, but the near-failing 67.3 grade was enough to rank the state seventh-best in the country on measures of transparency, accountability and ethics in its government.
The ranking is much higher than might have been expected as Alabama’s powerful speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Hubbard, faces 23 felony ethics charges alleging he used his office to benefit clients of one of his private companies and illegally lobbied the executive branch on their behalf. Not to mention the dozens of Alabama officials, employees, contractors and others convicted in state corruption-related cases in the past decade.
Jefferson County officials vowed not to make the same mistakes with a new financial software purchase that were made by a previous commission, which spent nearly $20 million for a system that was eventually scrapped.
But the current commission now faces problems with its $5 million-plus replacement — a system the county needs to help comply with a non-discrimination court decree.
Virginia Martin is the Alabama reporter dispatched this year by the Center for Public Integrity to find answers to 245 questions about transparency, accountability and ethics in 13 areas of the state’s government. For Martin, it was a return to the scene where she spent many of her 30 years as a reporter and editor.
Martin was political editor and state editor for The Birmingham News and for several years coordinated legislative coverage by that Birmingham newspaper, The Huntsville Times and the (Mobile) Press-Register. Stories about accusations of wrongdoing against Gov. Don Siegelman and those about corruption in the state’s two-year college system were among those that came to her desk.
You’ll find Martin’s knowledge of Alabama politics and government, as well as findings of the new survey, in these close-up looks at the good, the fair and the ugly of the state’s performance in 13 important areas. Story links are presented in best to worst-grade order. You can take the full tour or check on one area that especially interests you. Either way you’ll get fresh, important information about how the public’s business gets done in our state, from an expert guide.
Alabama’s highest score in the Center for Public Integrity Report came in the Internal Auditing category. It scored 87, ranking it fourth-best in the country. The high score comes from the state’s having an office dedicated to auditing government agencies that is largely not dependent on political favor and that releases copies of its audits to the public. The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts regularly audits every state and county office, board and commission and all accounts that receive or disburse government money. It is overseen by the Legislative Committee on Public Accounts, which appoints the director and can influence the budget.
Alabama received its highest ranking in the Center for Public Integrity study on the category of Executive Accountability. It was ranked second-best in the country, with a score of 81.9. Ironically, Alabama got that high score in part because officials have been tried and convicted for corruption. The prosecutions show the state has laws prohibiting corruption and the political will to take the cases to court. There has been no shortage of prosecutions.
Alabama scored a 78.8 in the Pension Fund Management category of the Center for Public Integrity study, ranking it seventh in the country. The primary driver of the state’s relatively high ranking in this category is that the Retirement Systems of Alabama uses staff analysts to make investment decisions, with oversight from the boards of control for the Teachers’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System. The state does not contract with outside firms to manage the investments and does not procure investments through placement agents, a practice that has come under fire recently in several other states. The study did not take into account the return on investments achieved by the RSA or recent criticisms about the systems’ unfunded liabilities. The state did get a less-than-perfect score on the issue of whether politics played into investment decisions.
Alabama scored 75.2 in the Legislative Accountability category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth-best in the country in that regard. That is not to say Alabama hasn’t faced the prospect of corruption in the ranks of legislators in recent years; it has. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is set to go to trial in March on 23 felony ethics charges. Most of the charges allege that Hubbard used or attempted to use his legislative office to benefit clients of one of his private companies or used his position when he was chairman of the state Republican Party to secure business for his private companies. He also faces four charges that he lobbied the governor’s office and the Department of Commerce under the auspices of his private business for two clients.
Alabama was given a 73 score in the Ethics Enforcement Agency category in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth in the country. A series of changes to the Ethics Law beginning in 2010 have heavily influenced that score. Since that time, the Ethics Commission has been given a guaranteed budget, which reduces the effect of political pressure on operations. It also has been given subpoena power, which allowed it to conduct more effective investigations. Some ethics rules have been tightened or more explicitly defined in the law, and public officials now are required to undergo ethics training regularly.
Alabama scored a 71.2 in the State Budget Process, a number that ranked it 33rd in the country in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. The state got high marks for having a relatively open budgeting process while the budget is being debated. The governor’s recommended budget is posted on the Executive Budget Office website, along with information about the state’s debts and projected revenues. Budget bills being debated by the Legislature are publicly available, and information about changes to those bills is posted to the Legislative Fiscal Office’s website during the process. The budgets also are discussed in open committee meetings.
Alabama got a 66.3 score in the Lobbying Disclosure category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 20th in the country on that measure. Alabama got high scores for requiring people who are paid to lobby any branch of government, including the executive branch, to register with the Ethics Commission. Those who are classified as lobbyists must file registration forms within 10 days of beginning lobbying activities. Otherwise the state got a lot of grades in the middle of the spectrum. For instance, all lobbyists are required to file with the Ethics Commission quarterly reports declaring any money spent on public officials, employees or their families over the amounts set in law, or any other business associations they have with public officials, candidates or their families.
Alabama scored a 66 on the Civil Service Management category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 11th in the country. Alabama got high marks for having a structured Merit System with set requirements for state positions and a State Personnel Board that, among other responsibilities, can investigate allegations of inequities. The state has a whistleblower law that protects employees from retaliation after they report corruption, abuse of power or other misdeeds by supervisors. Whistleblowers who feel they have been wronged may appeal to the Personnel Board or file suit in civil court. However, the state does not require employees to report corruption, nor does it have a separate, defined office for receiving employee complaints of such a nature.
Alabama scored a 66 in the Electoral Oversight category of the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 27th in the country on that measure. The state scored well on having an agency, the Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, tasked with monitoring the state election process and for having good public access to election data. However, the Secretary of State’s Office does not have legal authority to formally investigate allegations of fraud or voting irregularities, and it has no authority to impose sanctions against violators. The office does operate a Voter Fraud Unit that solicits complaints from residents, assesses them and forwards any thought to have merit to the Attorney General’s Office, which does have authority to investigate. The office also on occasion has investigated allegations at the request of county officials or sent personnel to be at the polls on election day if concerns had been raised ahead of time.
Alabama was scored 65.4 in the Procurement category, ranking it 35th in the country in the State Integrity Investigation. Alabama got high marks for having a competitive bid law, which requires most contracts involving $15,000 or more be awarded through a competitive bid process. This includes contracts for labor, services, work, or purchase or lease of materials, equipment supplies or other personal property. But there are exceptions, including professional services contracts and contracts issued in cases of emergency involving public health, safety or convenience. The public can get information about contracts awarded in the past 60 days on the Purchasing Division website.
Alabama scored a 61.8 on the Judicial Accountability category in the State Integrity Investigation, but that was enough to rank it 12th-best among states across the country. The state’s low overall score is based in large part on the state having elected judges, an issue of frequent debate in Alabama. The only professional standard candidates must meet is being a lawyer, and there is no group legally charged with evaluating the qualifications of candidates or the performance of judges. Additionally, Alabama does not have a law requiring judges to explain their decisions in writing. Judges usually do give reasons for their decisions, especially for on bigger issues and especially appellate court justice.
Alabama scored 41.5 in the Political Financing category on the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 42nd among states. The biggest reason for Alabama’s dismal showing in this category is that the state does not cap political contributions to political candidates from any source. The state had capped contributions from corporations, but it lifted that cap beginning in 2013. The only significant restriction the state places on political financing is a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, which when approved in 2010 ended what had become an extensive shell game of moving money through multiple PACs so the source was obscured by the time it reached the candidate. People and corporations can – and do – still deflect attention from their donations by giving to multiple PACs, however.
Alabama chalked up its lowest score in the State Integrity Investigation in the category Access to Public Information. The state scored a 40.6 in that category, ranking it 33th in the country. The state’s low score in this category is almost entirely because it has no central office or defined mechanism for people to complain if they are denied access to public records or meetings, other than filing suit in court. Alabama does have laws that give the public access to most government records and meetings. The state’s open records law defines public records broadly as any written materials made or received by a public officer as part of the transaction of public business, and it applies to any subdivision of government, including cities, counties and boards.