MONTGOMERY — Legislation repealing and replacing the existing code of ethics and revising the duties and powers of the ethics commission passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

House Bill 227 (HB227), sponsored by State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), would overhaul the state's ethics law, enhancing penalties for certain offenses, removing others from the criminal code and revising the role and scope of the commission and the appointment process for the commission director.  

The bill would revise the definition of bribery and add a new crime of using public office for financial gain to the criminal code. It would also move bribery from a Class C felony to Class B.

The bill would keep how the commission is overseen by five commission members who serve five-year terms and are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and Speaker of the House of Representatives. The commission would still appoint a director to oversee its operations. However, the bill would establish new five-year terms for the director and a reappointment process subject to Senate confirmation. 

The bill would also:

  • Transfer all criminal violations to the criminal code and authorize the ethics commission to impose private warnings, public reprimands, civil penalties, and restitution for violations of the ethics code or Fair Campaign Practices Act.

  • Explicitly authorize formal and informal advisory opinions from the commission and establish specific publishing requirements, including publishing the core principles articulated in informal opinions.

  • Require the commission to provide notice to a person under an ethics investigation.

  • Prohibit a state legislator from sponsoring or voting on legislation that could lead to a conflict of interest.  

  • Prohibit a public official or public employee from taking official action that could lead to a conflict of interest and define "conflict of interest."

  • Prohibit certain entities seeking to influence official action before a governmental body, including a lobbyist, termed a "prohibited source," from giving gifts to certain public servants and would prohibit public servants from accepting gifts from prohibited sources. This bill would also define "gift" as anything valued over $100, with some exceptions.

  • Revise who must file a statement of economic interests and what information must be disclosed on a statement, and require the redaction of certain personal information on a statement from publication by the commission.

When introducing the bill, Simpson described a situation during orientation after his election in 2018. He repeatedly emphasized that the bill's purpose was to clarify "confusing" and "convoluted" language that could endanger public officials on a smaller scale.

"At that orientation process, there was a panel of ethics attorneys; there were three ethics attorneys on that panel," Simpson said.

He continued, "When members of the legislature asked the attorneys who specialize in ethics in Alabama what we could and couldn't do, we got three separate answers. One attorney would say yes, one attorney would say no, and one attorney would say it depends on the situation. If we, as legislators with experts, can't determine what we can and can't do with the laws in Alabama, what chance does the firefighter, what chance does the police officer, what chance does the city worker, and what chance does the teacher have to understand what we can and can't do in ethics violations.?"

The bill also removes the crime of using one's position for personal gain from the ethics law, allowing district attorneys or the attorney general to prosecute those instances under the state's bribery laws. Simpson clarified that the amended legislation removed language that stated that bribery occurs when a thing of value is exchanged in a quid pro quo. Instead, "anything" conferred to a public servant, or any person closely associated with the public servant, intending to secure a specific action by the public servant in their official capacity would be considered bribery.

After less than an hour of discussion, the bill ultimately passed 79-9 with 15 abstentions.

Little Debate was held on the bill, lacking much in the way of opposition. However, Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton and Attorney General Steve Marshall opposed the legislation, leading Simpson to quip that only he can make Albritton and Marshall agree on anything.

RELATED: Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall: Is ethics legislation what the public wants?

After the bill passed, Simpson told reporters he still thinks highly of Marshall, though they disagree on the bill's efficacy.

"I hate that [Marshall] feels the way he feels," Simpson said. "I disagree with him on the fact that it's not going to be able to be prosecuted. I've prosecuted cases. I've prosecuted ethics cases. I can tell you that I feel this strengthens the laws and makes prosecutions stronger because you have the opportunity to pursue people who are using their office for pecuniary gain for anything. And it's not just for anything; it's for anyone."

He continued, "I still am a big fan of his, till think highly of Steve Marshall, still think highly of the AG's office, we just disagree on this issue."

Simpson reiterated that the bill's purpose was to clarify bribery language, ensure easier prosecution for anyone who uses their office for personal gain, and give clear guidelines that prevent public figures from inadvertently violating ethics laws.

"This is important because it affects 300,000 Alabamians directly," Simpson said. "This is not about the 140 people in this legislature; this is about the teachers, the firefighters, the city workers, everyone that works for the local, state or county government. These are the people who are affected on a day-in basis."

"It's only fair to people that if they are going to be prosecuted under this case, you have to let them know where the lines are. Now, if they cross those lines, they should be prosecuted, and they will be prosecuted under this bill. But it's only fair to let people know, 'these are the lines; if you cross them, we're coming for you," he continued.

The bill will now go to the Senate for deliberation.

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