Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton’s child received another $15,000 in tuition payments from a charitable trust upon which he serves as a board member, bringing the total amount from the trust that paid his kids’ tuition to $120,000, newly available tax information reveals.
In addition, Lagniappe has learned the trust paid $45,000 in tuition costs at Southern Methodist University (SMU) for a child of a Covington County circuit court judge and former law partner of Albritton’s.
Albritton serves as one of three directors of the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund, a charitable trust set up to provide scholarships for students in Covington County. The trust was created in the final will and testament of Amos, who served as a personal secretary for six Alabama governors and was the state’s first female Secretary of State. Albritton’s law firm created the will for the then-92-year-old Amos, placing two of its attorneys — Albritton and Rick Clifton — on the board, along with John Bell, a representative from Regions Bank, which manages the trust.
According to the will, four criteria should be used by board members in order to award scholarship money: the character of the individual; the intelligence of the individual, “which shall be above average”; the scholastic record of the individual; and the financial need of the individual.
As Lagniappe reported in June, the Amos trust started handing out a small number of scholarships to students in 2002. That went on for several years until oil was discovered in 2010 on a piece of property Amos had owned in Conecuh County. It has since produced more than $80 million in gas and oil, pouring millions in royalties into the Mabel Amos Fund. By 2018, the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund had a value of more than $9 million and handed out more than $460,000 in scholarships.
According to IRS 990 forms, which must be filed by non-profits each year, scholarship payouts began ramping up in 2012, and in 2013, Martha H. Albritton received a $15,000 scholarship to attend the University of Texas. In 2014, Regions stopped listing the names of individuals receiving scholarships, listing instead the educational institutions they were attending. However, the 990s from that year on do contain a notation next to the University of Texas in the “recipients” column that says “scholarship for board member.” Tom Albritton has verified those payments were for his daughter and son.
As previously reported, the trust made $15,000 payments to UT in 2013 and 2014, payments of $30,000 in 2015, $22,500 in 2016, $7,500 in 2017 and $15,000 in 2018, according to 990s for those years — for a total of $105,000. The recently released 2019 990 shows yet another payment to UT for $15,000.
When asked in June — prior to the 2019 990 becoming public — if there were more scholarship awards for his children after 2018, Albritton would not comment. Lagniappe asked him again last week if there were any more scholarship payments for his children after 2019, but Albritton has not responded.
While the parts of Mabel Amos’s will that established the trust appear to give great latitude to its three trustees in terms of making expenditures and selecting scholarship recipients, it does contain very strict language against “self-dealing” by trustees.
“The trustee shall not engage in any act of self-dealing as defined in section 4941(d), and shall not make any taxable expenditures as defined in section 5489,” it reads.
The Internal Revenue Service Section 4941(d) description of self-dealing would appear to prohibit a trust from paying tuition or other expenses for a trustee’s child or children, as that would directly benefit the trustee, referred to in the will as a “disqualified person.” It reads as follows:
“(1) In general for purposes of this section, the term “self-dealing” means any direct or indirect — (A) sale or exchange, or leasing, of property between a private foundation and a disqualified person; (B) lending of money or other extension of credit between a private foundation and a disqualified person; (C) furnishing of goods, services or facilities between a private foundation and a disqualified person; (D) payment of compensation (or payment or reimbursement of expenses) by a private foundation to a disqualified person; (E) transfer to, or use by or for the benefit of, a disqualified person of the income or assets of a private foundation; and (F) agreement by a private foundation to make any payment of money or other property to a government official (as defined in section 4946(c)), other than an agreement to employ such individual for any period after the termination of his government service if such individual is terminating his government service within a 90-day period.”
However, Albritton said in a June interview that the prohibitions against self-dealing weren’t broken because he didn’t actually cast a vote for his children’s school to be paid for by the trust. He says his decision not to vote for his kids’ scholarships essentially insulates him from any wrongdoing.
“Regarding my kids’ scholarships, there’s no restriction within the trust for who can get it. Where my kids are concerned, I didn’t participate in that decision. It was made by one of the other trustees and a Regions representative, who at the time was John Bell,” Albritton explained. Clifton, the other trustee, was a longtime legal partner of Albritton’s.
He also said the vote to distribute scholarship money for his children’s education was made before he was appointed to the Ethics Commission.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. And certainly, any decision that was made to benefit my kids was before I got hired to do this job,” he said.
The first scholarship payment for Albritton’s children was made in 2013. He was appointed to head up the Ethics Commission in 2015, but payments continued at least four years after he took that office. Lagniappe has asked if the trust paid any of his daughter’s law school tuition at Duke University in the past couple of years, but Albritton has not responded to any questions since his initial June interview.
Baldwin County blogger and podcast host Paul Ripp filed a complaint against Albritton with the Ethics Commission he oversees in July and received a reply from the agency this week declaring Albritton was not a state employee at the time the vote to pay for his children’s tuition was made, and any complaint would extend past the four-year statute of limitations.
“After a review of the complaint you submitted, it is clear from the facts alleged that T.A. was not a public employee at the time of the alleged violation. Therefore, T.A. was not subject to the Ethics Act in 2014,” General Counsel Cynthia Propst Raulston wrote. “Also, the complaint must allege a violation of the Ethics Act that occurred within four years. Ala. Code 36-25-27. Seven years have elapsed since the initial scholarship award. Further, there are no facts alleged that T.A.’s public position had any relation to the scholarship award or his service on the Board for the trust, so there is no evidence that he used his public position for the benefit of a family member in violation of the Ethics Act after he became a public employee in 2015. As such, there are no facts alleged on the face of the complaint that would constitute a violation of this chapter. Because our jurisdiction is not invoked, we are closing our file in this matter.”
Ripp also provided the reply he received from the Alabama Bar Association after filing a complaint against Albritton with that group. The Bar Association also declined to take any action regarding Ripp’s complaint, but did provide in its response a letter Albritton wrote to the association.
In his August 5 letter to the Alabama Bar Association, Albritton offered more details than he did when interviewed by Lagniappe. In the letter, Albritton claimed the trust has not turned down anyone for a scholarship who meets the ACT criteria established by the board.
“The trust has historically awarded scholarships to any student who applies for it, regardless of need, as long as the student has an ACT score over a certain cut-off which varies from year to year, but the cutoff has never been higher than a 25,” Albritton wrote. “In other words, the trustees have not exercised much discretion for example by interviewing applicants, etc. If you apply you get a scholarship as long as your ACT meets the cut-off.”
Albritton also wrote that the amount of the scholarship money awarded depends upon where the students matriculate. Out-of-state schools and private institutions cost more, so recipients will get more, he explained.
As for his children’s scholarships, Albritton told the Bar Association that the Regions Bank Trust Department precleared a vote to award them scholarship money from the trust. Albritton also seems to be saying he abstained from voting on any scholarships at all in 2013 when his daughter was awarded.
“That year, however, I stayed out of the decision of how to award any scholarships or the amounts of any scholarship, and deferred that decision to the remaining two trustees who voted to award the scholarship to my daughter — without my input — as well as every other applicant who met the basic criteria,” he wrote.
In the letter Albritton said he did not vote for either of his children to receive scholarship money, funds were paid directly to the University of Texas and those payments did not keep anyone else from receiving funds.
Albritton is not the only former member of the firm that drafted Amos’ will to have benefitted from the Mabel Amos Memorial Foundation. Covington County Circuit Court Judge Ben Bowden said last week that his child was a scholarship recipient. According to 990 records, scholarships awarded to SMU totaled $45,000 between 2014 and 2017. Bowden said he couldn’t remember how much money was awarded, but did confirm his child attended SMU.
As the payments began in 2014, Bowden’s name was concealed. An anonymous source alerted a reporter to the disbursements for Bowden’s child and alleged others connected with Albritton’s former law firm have received scholarship money.
Bowden said he and Albritton were law partners for 11 years and that they remain friends.
“We haven’t worked together in a while, you know we were law partners for 11 years, so I would say we’re colleagues and friends,” Bowden said.
Bowden said his child applied for scholarships through high school. Asked if Albritton encouraged his child to apply, Bowden said, “not that I remember.”
“You have to be in the top 10 of your class, is what I remember, and if you’re in the top 10 ranked members of your class, then I think you were eligible for that scholarship,” Bowden said.
The fact that a former law partner of Albritton’s also benefited from the trust is something Mabel Amos’ grand niece Leigh Manning has worried about. As one of Amos’ only living relatives, and someone who did receive money from her will, Manning has expressed a belief that her elderly aunt was not mentally capable of making good decisions when Albritton’s firm drafted her will in 1993.
Manning’s daughter, Megan Carmack, did receive $72,000 in disbursements for private elementary through high school, but only got $4,000 for college. Manning and Carmack only found out about the discovery of oil on their relative’s property after Lagniappe’s first article appeared in June. Manning says she was in touch with Regions representative John Bell regularly for years after the oil discovery, but he never said anything.
Those issues have left Manning concerned about the way the trust is being handled. She has hired well-known Montgomery attorney Thomas Gallion to look into the matter. Gallion has said he believes the fund is being mismanaged.
“I was shocked to discover how Regions Bank Trust Department has treated Mabel Amos’s family under the Mabel Amos Educational Trust. I have agreed to represent the family as to how members of their family have been treated and the obvious mismanagement of the trust,” Gallion wrote.
Regions Bank, which has been paid more than $1 million in administration fees by the trust between 2002 and 2018, has refused to provide the names of those who received scholarships since 2014 when it stopped listing their names in 990 forms.
“We reiterate that the fund’s reporting is in compliance with Alabama law and IRS requirements. Beyond this, we have no further information to share at this time,” Senior Vice President, Media and Public Relations Manager Jeremy D. King wrote in an email last week.
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