As a newspaper publisher and journalist, maybe I should consider it job security, but it’s no secret Alabama is rife with corruption and unethical behavior. That’s not to say the majority of people working in local and state government aren’t honest folks doing their jobs ethically and legally, it’s just an acknowledgement of those among their ranks who appear determined to rig the system in their favor.
More often than not, the most egregious behavior is simply waved off and with no consequences for the perpetrator. Just a short trip back in the Hot Tub Time Machine, for instance, would land us right in the middle of Robert “Luv Guv” Bentley’s reign of terror, during which he misused government resources and employees while trying to keep his extramarital affair under wraps. Remember Bentley having his wallet helicoptered to the Gulf? Or that time he bribed Attorney General Luther Strange with an appointment to the U.S. Senate? Neither faced the consequences they should have.
Why are we like this? One answer might be that Alabama has essentially been a one-party state forever — first Democrat then Republican — which means more likelihood people will look the other way when someone in their tribe screws up.
But another reason is our supposed public corruption watchdog is the Alabama Ethics Commission, which has historically been a toothless, deaf and blind mutt at best. According to the “About Us” section of its website, the AEC’s mission “to ensure that public officials are independent and impartial; that decisions and policies are made in the proper governmental channels; that public office is not used for private gain; and, most importantly, that there is public confidence in the integrity of government.”
It sounds good, but do they live up to those claims?
I can’t say that I’ve ever been terribly impressed with AEC when it comes to investigating corruption, because they’ve never been at all proactive. Their website’s “News” section, for example, reports only five convictions or indictments in the past two years. I’m not sure that conviction rate is going to put the fear of Jesus into sticky-fingered officials and public employees.
Still, we’re supposed to rely on the Ethics Commission to ensure standards are upheld, which is what makes the story of Ethic Commission Director Tom Albritton’s involvement with the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund particularly interesting.
If you haven’t been following Lagniappe’s stories on this, Albritton is one of three board members running the charitable trust set up in Amos’ will. Mabel Amos was Alabama’s first female Secretary of State and also secretary to six governors. She died in 1999 at the age of 99.
Amos was friendly with Albritton’s family and had their law firm draft her will when she was in her early 90s. The will placed two members of the firm — Tom and Rick Clifton — on the trust’s board of directors, along with a lawyer from Regions bank named John Bell. The trust was charged with doling out college scholarships to underprivileged kids, but for the first nine years they awarded an average of about $20,000 a year in scholarship money. But then, up from the ground come a-bubblin’ crude.
In 2010, a wildcatter struck oil on a piece of land Amos had owned in Conecuh County and money began gushing into her trust. It grew from about $500,000 in total value in 2010 to more than $9 million in 2018, which is the last year public records were available. In no time at all, the trust was handing out hundreds of thousands a year in scholarships, and records show at least $105,000 went to pay for Albritton’s kids to attend the University of Texas.
Broadly, a board member receiving something of value from a charitable trust is called “self-dealing” — essentially funneling money to yourself — and it is illegal. But Albritton and Clifton had that one covered when I called. Tom, you see, didn’t vote to give his kids that tuition money. The other two board members did it. He abstained. They both claim it means he’s not a self-dealer if his buddies made the vote.
The plot thickens though. After we ran our first story, Amos’ surviving relatives were hot. Her grand niece claimed not only had her daughter been denied college money from the trust, but that in nearly a decade of conversations, Bell had never mentioned the oil strike. They had no idea Amos’ land had produced more than $80 million in oil and gas over the past 11 years and had to find out from a newspaper article.
Further complicating things is that starting in 2014, Regions stopped putting the names of individual scholarship recipients on their IRS 990 forms as they had the prior 12 years. As the trust has dispersed amounts as high as $460,000 for scholarships in 2018, it has become impossible to tell who is getting the money. All that is written down are school names, even though individuals must apply for the scholarships personally.
Given that Regions, which prepares the 990s, revealed the names of recipients for 12 years, it’s hard to believe there was suddenly a privacy issue once the gusher hit. So we’re left wondering whether other board members benefited from the same kind of wink-and-a-nod scholarship awards.
Neither Albritton nor Clifton are talking any more. They won’t answer questions about why Amos’ family was never informed about the oil, or whether other board members benefitted.
Regions finally reached out a few days ago, more or less to say I should have contacted their public relations person to answer questions instead of trying to call their current board member. When I sent my questions to them though, I pretty much got a “no comment.” They aren’t going to make that list of scholarship recipients public.
So why is all of this important? The Mabel Amos Memorial Fund isn’t public money, so why does it matter?
I think it matters because Tom Albritton is displaying all of the classic reactions of someone who got caught doing something he shouldn’t have done. Granted, the payments for his kids’ tuition started the year before he was named AEC director, but they continued at least until 2018, a few years after his appointment. I asked if there were more after 2018, but he didn’t respond.
Public officials are constantly faced with issues like this, particularly at the local level. Often successful people are on boards and councils, and their financial interests might intersect with the business of the entity upon which they serve. Maybe some will be more tempted to do the wrong thing now, knowing the head of the Ethics Commission has also made the wrong choice. Maybe they’ll think he won’t go after them because it will only draw attention to his own hypocrisy.
Albritton can claim his children were qualified for the scholarships, but I don’t think the term “underprivileged” would apply to them. That should have been reason enough to deny them. Also, if Albritton wants to set an ethical standard, he should reveal who else the board has given scholarships and how much.
When the state’s Ethics Commission Director sets this kind of example, how can we expect Alabama to ever get any better?
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