Despite claims from detractors that it could weaken state ethics laws, Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Fairhope) is standing by a bill he says would clarify rules about the kinds of business relationships Alabama politicos are allowed to maintain in office.
It’s one of several pieces of pending legislation that could tweak the criminal statutes that have led to high-profile public corruption charges since their adoption in 2010. While he says he supports “strong ethics laws,” Pittman said speculation often arises when business owners with active customers or clients are elected to a public position.
“Once you get elected there’s always a question of why people are doing business with you, and I was trying to separate those,” he said. “When you have a business and customers before you run for office, just because you’re elected doesn’t mean you have to lose your existing business or those business relationships.”
Pittman’s own business relationships drew him into an ethics investigation in 2010 after his company, Pittman Tractor Co., received a $639,000 contract to deploy protective boom for the city of Fairhope in the wake of the BP oil spill.
The project was funded with grants from early BP funds. Pittman was tasked by former Gov. Bob Riley to be a liaison to entities pursuing recovery projects in Baldwin County, though he says he had no direct role in appropriating those dollars. The situation led to an ethics complaint and subsequent investigation, though no action was taken against Pittman.
Though the story was covered extensively in the media when it occurred, Pittman disclosed for the first time last week that the matter was also investigated and cleared by the FBI and a federal grand jury.
Pittman still maintains that, because his company had a history of working with the city of Fairhope, it wasn’t unusual to have been awarded the contract he says the city “selected based on the best price and performance of the work.”
“I felt comfortable as a matter of point because I had an existing relationship with the city,” he added. “The only regret I have is that there’s a perception of something maybe having happened that was improper, and what that does is diminish people’s confidence in their government.”
Pittman said he hoped his current bill, SB 221, could “clarify” some of those issues.
While the ethics commission currently issues opinions to public officials about the legality of their activity in the private sector, Pittman’s proposal would streamline and expand the commission’s duties.
If passed, his bill would require the ethics commission to record all of the business relationships that exist when candidates qualify for office, and that information would then be submitted along with their required statement of economic interests.
It would also prevent legislators from accepting compensation from any new business arrangement without approval from the ethics commission, which would issue a pre-approval based on factors such as an official’s experience in the service being provided, how it compares to prior business activity and whether the level of compensation is unusual.
Even though documents detailing those arrangements are considered public records, the bill would allow the commission to seal them if a legislator can show how the release of those documents might harm themselves or any of the parties involved.
That said, the main criticisms of the bill have focused on a single provision that would shield lawmakers from any civil or criminal liability involving an approved business arrangement, so long as the information submitted to the commission was truthful.
When asked about it, Pittman even seemed a bit unsure of this provision himself.
“When you carry legislation, you take ownership of all of it, but every part of the bill is not something I necessarily initiated,” he said. “I can see how you could say that could go too far, but if you’re going to go through this and get the approval, it’s almost like a formal ethics opinion now. Still, that language may be a bit too much.”
Pittman said that and other issues could be addressed as the bill proceeds, though he didn’t seem confident about its lifespan in the current session. It’s worth noting that Pittman isn’t seeking re-election, though he did mount an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat the ended with the 2017 GOP primary.
There are other bills in the Legislature aiming to make changes to existing ethics laws, though. One would give legislators more authority to appoint members of the ethics commission, while another aims to clarify that incentives related to economic development projects should not be considered lobbying.
However, the most anticipated bill is probably one most lawmakers haven’t seen, and that is a “substantive” ethics reform package from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office that has yet to be introduced or find a formal sponsor.
Pittman told Lagniappe he’d reviewed a marked-up copy of Marshall’s proposal, but wasn’t able to discuss yet. Spokesman Mike Lewis later confirmed the attorney general’s intent to move the proposal forward soon.
“The [AG’s] office has been working for 18 months on legislation to clarify and strengthen Alabama’s 2010 ethics law,” he said. “Furthermore, it is our goal to have our substantive ethics reform bill introduced this legislative session.”
While little is known about what changes Marshall might be considering, they’re sure to be a focal point in his campaign to keep the position he was appointed to by former Gov. Robert Bentley in 2017. Pittman also said he’d carry Marshall’s bill if no one else in the Senate is willing.
Given the number of legislators forgoing re-election to pursue more lucrative private interests, Pittman said strong ethics laws are needed to help ensure statewide political offices are viewed as a public service, not a savvy career move.
Paraphrasing the famous quote from George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm,” Pittman said in the Alabama Legislature “All are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”
“Some members are able to do things that allow them to make a living being a legislator, but everybody doesn’t do that,” he said. “If you’re going to serve, there are things you’re going to forgo. Instead of term limits, I think the key is having strong ethics laws so people understand this is public service, and there is a financial sacrifice.”
Updated on Feb. 10, 2018 to more accurately reflect Pittman’s role in 2010 BP grants overseen by the state of Alabama.