Alabama Ethics Reform: 75 Percent Is Better Than Nothing

VIDEO: Brian Ross
WATCH Caught on Tape: Pol Threatens Reporter

When Alabama governor Bob Riley called a special session of the state legislature last month, it was to enact what he hoped would be the toughest ethics laws in the nation. Alabama's existing laws, some of the loosest in the nation, had contributed to an influence-peddling scandal and an ongoing federal probe that has already resulted in the indictment of four state legislators and three gambling lobbyists.

But there's a reason lawmaking is often compared to sausage-making. The package of reforms that were passed in December and became law this week represent a significant improvement on Alabama's old rules, say observers. There were enough exceptions added to the package by lawmakers, however, and enough loopholes in the language that the state legislature will have to revisit the issue when it reconvenes in March.

Ellen Miller of the Washington, D.C. based good government group The Sunlight Foundation said, "You have to start someplace. " "[Alabama] is not leading the way or blazing new paths," said Miller, "but it is a first step."

Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, a state regulatory agency with newly expanded powers, said that Alabama is now "at 75 percent of where we want to be."

"When you have so many different entities and influences on a particular bill, I don't think you ever get to 100 percent of where you want to," said Evans. "Everyone offered an amendment and so it was an amalgamation."

Gov. Riley, long an advocate of ethics reform, called for the special session after the October indictments, and after a November election in which Democratic losses may have been made still more sweeping by the party's perceived closeness to the gaming industry. Under Alabama's old rules, lobbyists could spend up to $250 a day on an individual legislator without disclosure, or more than $90,000 a year. The lax restrictions led to cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, like that seen during an ABC News investigation in 2010. At a national convention of state legislators last summer, student journalists working for the Brian Ross Investigative Unit found four Alabama lawmakers golfing with a gaming lobbyist instead of attending a seminar on good government.

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Gov. Riley's proposed changes would have limited lobbyist spending on an individual legislator to $25 per occasion and $100 per year. As passed, the Alabama reforms address some of the alleged abuses that arose during a years-long attempt by the gaming industry to pass a law that would allow electronic bingo in Alabama. Specifically, there can be no more hidden transfers of money from one political action committee, or PAC, to another -- allegedly a means by which gaming lobbyists were able to funnel money to legislators.

The reforms also make it harder for lobbyists and legislators to go on beach and golf outings like the one witnessed by ABC News, because lobbyists are now barred from providing "things of value." Lobbyists are largely limited to buying food and drink for legislators.

But Gov. Riley, who left office this month after two terms, did not get all that he wanted when it came to spending limits. Instead of his proposed $25 daily cap, the new limit is $50, and because of exceptions added to the bill Alabama continues to permit unlimited spending on so-called "educational meetings" and for meals at "widely attended events." While the first version of the bill said every expenditure would have to be reported, the final version includes no new reporting requirement for lobbyists, who previously only had to disclose any amount over $250 spent in a given day on a legislator.

"Whenever members are regulating themselves," said Miller, "you can always expect the lowest common denominator to be the law that survives"

Bradley Byrne, a former state legislator who is now with the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative thinktank, called the exceptions for educational meetings and widely attended events "two big loopholes." But he said that while he thought the lobbyist bill needed to be stronger, he still considered the new ethics rules to be "historic."

"All of these are much needed and game-changing laws," said Byrne.

Now, before the legislature comes back into session in March to tweak its pre-Christmas reforms, it's up to the lawyers to decide exactly how much of the game has changed. Hugh Evans, general counsel to the state's Ethics Commission, said that at a meeting of attorneys for both the bill sponsors and the state's lobbyists Tuesday, neither side was "able to figure out what they can and can't do."

"We concluded that there are a lot of ambiguities," said Evans, "and a lot of things that still need a lot more work."

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