The Alabama Ethics Commission’s decision last week that it is not responsible for turning over exculpatory evidence to those it is investigating appears to be the latest in a series of controversial matters swirling around the state agency.
A special meeting of the Ethics Commission took place last Wednesday in which members considered the matter of whether they were required to reveal exculpatory evidence to the targets of their investigations. Representatives from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office argued strongly that the Ethics Commission has a duty to reveal potentially clearing evidence to those it is investigating under the federal “Brady Rule.” In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court established the “Brady Rule” in determining that suppression of exculpatory information would violate the constitutional due process rights of defendants.
However, members of the Ethics Commission rejected the notion that the commission is required to do so, based upon its function as a “pre-grand jury accusatory body” and not a prosecutorial agency. In essence, the commission argued it is the duty of prosecutors to relay “Brady material” to defendants, not the commission, which operates much like a grand jury. The commission argued the requirement to release such information would likely result in defendants learning the names of those who filed complaints against them, which might ultimately create hesitation by potential complainants.
Ethics commissioners ultimately decided they are not required to release information that would clear defendants.
That decision was met with opposition from not only the attorney general’s office, which argued the commission has the power to devastate lives and destroy careers, but also from opinion makers across the state who see it as shutting down transparency and raising the specter of the commission unfairly harming innocent people.
While this decision has put the Ethics Commission at the center of a debate about whether it is being unfair to the accused, other issues involving the commission are perhaps more troubling.
In November, Marshall sent a letter to the Ethics Commission exercising his discretion as attorney general to reverse the commission’s finding of four minor violations of state ethics laws against Montgomery Police Chief Ernest Finley and Chief of Operations Jennifer Reaves last summer.
“To the extent you found probable cause to believe that the above-referenced respondents violated the Alabama Ethics Act, I believe you did so based on incomplete or misleading information. As a matter of public record, I find that neither Respondent Reaves nor Respondent Finley engaged in any criminal conduct whatsoever,” Marshall wrote in a letter provided to Lagniappe by his office.
He went on to write that the reports and case files used in determining Finley’s and Reaves’ violations “contain material misrepresentations of facts” and “rely upon demonstrably false evidence and demonstrate violations of your general counsel’s ethical obligations under the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct.”
Marshall claimed the Ethics Commission’s general counsel, Cynthia Raulston, and senior investigator, Byron Butler, were involved in misleading the commission.
“The transcript of the hearing before the commission indicates that material misrepresentations of fact were made to the commissioners both by the general counsel and the case agent,” Marshall wrote.
Marshall wrote that an investigation by his office found Ethics Commission staff violated Finey’s and Reaves’ due process rights and did not comply with state law.
Marshall decertified Raulston as a deputy attorney general and said he “must object to her serving the commission in any legal capacity.”
Both Raulston and Butler remain employed with the Ethics Commission, according to its website. Raulston’s title is now listed as special assistant to the director. Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Mike Lewis said the AG would have no comment when asked if the Ethics Commission is under investigation regarding these matters.
Further complicating matters for the Ethics Commission is a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the relatives of one-time Alabama Secretary of State Mabel Amos regarding the handling of a charitable trust established by her will. The will was created by the family law firm of current Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton.
The suit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleges a scheme between Regions Bank and its representative on the Mabel Amos Charitable Trust, John Bell, and Albritton and his former law partner Rick Clifton. Albritton and Clifton have served as two of the three board members for the trust since its inception after Amos’ death in 1999.
The lawsuit, filed by Amos’ grand-niece Leigh Gulley Manning and great-grand-niece Megan Carmack, alleges Regions was allowed by Albritton and Clifton to massively increase administrative fees charged to oversee the trust after oil was discovered on Amos land in 2010. In return for allowing Regions to make more, the suit alleges, Albritton and Clifton were allowed to disperse scholarship money to their own children from the trust designed to serve underprivileged students.
A Lagniappe investigation of the Mabel Amos Charitable Trust in June of last year found that it started with roughly $500,000 in assets and made a small number of scholarship awards to students listed in the IRS 990 forms each year from 2002 to 2013. However, as the fund became flush with oil proceeds and grew to have assets of more than $9 million at some points, more and larger scholarships were dispersed and Regions stopped putting individual recipients’ names on the 990 forms, concealing their identities.
Scholarships to Albritton’s daughter were listed by name one year and afterward, delineated by a notation that said, “Scholarship for Board Member Daughter.” Overall, Albritton’s son and daughter received at least $120,000 in scholarship money from the trust. While the lawsuit alleges other board members received scholarship money for their children, Lagniappe has not been able to verify that.
Albritton has denied wrongdoing, claiming he was not involved in “self-dealing” because he abstained from voting for the scholarships for his children. Still, the question of why Regions was allowed to massively increase its fees — $1.2 million taken between 2002 and 2020 — is one raised in the lawsuit.
Lagniappe was also able to verify that one of Albritton’s former law partners, current Covington County Circuit Court Judge Ben Bowden, has a child who was awarded scholarships to Southern Methodist University (SMU) totaling $45,000 between 2014 and 2017.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here