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.
Alabama has that in common with a couple of other states at the top of the integrity investigation list. Connecticut, ranked third, and Rhode Island, ranked fifth, also have been plagued with scandals that led to reforms in ethics laws even as dubious activity continued in the state.
The corruption prosecutions actually increased scores for those states because they show the states had effective laws prohibiting corruption and the political will to take corruption cases to court.
The rankings also say less about how well Alabama is doing and more about how badly other states are doing. The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C. Only two other states scored a C-, the majority of states scored in the D range and 11 states failed in the assessment.
The State Integrity Investigation is a data-driven, peer-reviewed assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Journalists in each state answered a slate of 245 questions about state laws and practices during the period January 2013 through March 2015. Altogether, the project looks at 13 areas of states’ government and presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics.
The study first was conducted in 2012. Alabama’s overall score this year was somewhat lower than the C- it received in 2012, though its ranking has improved from 17th on the list. The two scores are not directly comparable because of changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years. (For more information about the study, click here)
Best and Worst Grades
Alabama this year had two failing grades, a 40.6 in Public Access to Information and 41.5 in Political Financing.
The biggest reason for Alabama’s dismal showing in the Political Financing category is that the state does not cap contributions to political candidates from any source.
The low grade on Public Access to Information is due almost entirely to the state having 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.
The state’s highest scores were an 86.8 in Internal Auditing and an 81.9 in Executive Accountability.
Factoring into the Internal Auditing score was that the state has an office dedicated to auditing government agencies that releases copies of its audits to the public.
The high score in Executive Accountability takes into account, among other things, the state’s laws against using state property for personal gain, accepting gifts and hiring relatives, and its requirement that the governor and cabinet-level officials file statements of economic interests that are then public records. It also was raised because there have been prosecutions against officials in the executive branch. In fact, two of Alabama’s past six governors have been convicted while in office and sent to prison. One, former Gov. Don Siegelman, is still serving his sentence on bribery charges while he appeals his conviction.
Several laws passed this year also boosted scores for the state.
The Legislature in June passed a law that requires committees of government bodies to open their meetings to the public if a quorum of the committee is present. The change, which went into effect in September, closes a “serial meeting” loophole that had been opened when the state’s Supreme Court in 2012 ruled essentially that the Open Meetings Act did not apply to committees. The court said that if a committee met to discuss an issue that later would be discussed by the full body, then no open meeting was required.
Ethics Law Changes
In another change this year, the Legislature gave the Alabama Ethics Commission the authority to investigate alleged violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act, with the aid of the Secretary of State’s Office. If the commission determines there is reason to believe the act has been violated, it may forward the information to the attorney general or a district attorney for prosecution.
The Secretary of State’s Office and the probate judges also will be given the authority to levy administrative penalties against candidates who do not file reports on time and forward cases of repeat offenders to the Attorney General’s Office. The change will be made beginning with the 2018 elections.
These changes come on the heels of a series of reforms made to the state’s Ethics Law since 2010.
For many years, Alabama’s ethics law was criticized as toothless. But in 2010, the law was revised to give the Ethics Commission subpoena powers and to formalize the investigative process, and in 2011, the commission was given a guaranteed budget.
Language also has been tightened up in the law that made it illegal for public officials and employees to accept most gifts valued at $25 or more. After that law was passed, the commission began a training program to make sure officials and employees knew details of the ethics laws.
John Carroll, former acting director of the commission and a longtime political observer, said that since then, minor or unintentional violations have been drastically reduced. But the state still is plagued by allegations that the laws are broken on a much bigger scale.
Ironically, after championing the 2010 changes, Hubbard is now challenging their constitutionality. His attorney has questioned parts of the law and how prosecutors are applying it in the case, including whether the statute covers political party activity.
Alabama’s score in the Legislative Accountability category also was one of its higher ones, a 75.2.