Gov. Riley opposes limit on state Ethics Commission

Published 7:17 am Wednesday, March 11, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Bob Riley said Tuesday he doubts the Legislature will pass a bill putting time limits on investigations by the State Ethics Commission, but if it does, he will veto it.

Riley commented shortly after the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a public hearing on a bill by state Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe.

Barron’s bill would impose Alabama’s first time limit since the commission was created 35 years ago. The Senate committee plans to vote on the bill later, but Barron said he has received favorable responses from many members.

Barron said a time limit is needed because some investigations have dragged on for two years or more, which is unfair to everyone involved.

“I think my bill is very reasonable. It expedites justice,” Barron said.

His bill initially would have limited investigations to 30 days. He revised it Tuesday to allow six months. The commission could extend that another six months with the approval of a circuit judge in Montgomery.

Jim Sumner, the commission’s executive director, said the commission received 223 complaints in 2008 and had three investigators to handle them. Complicated cases can’t be rushed through in six months, he said.

“This bill is neither designed nor intended to do anything positive,” Sumner said.

The Republican governor is proposing legislation to bolster the Ethics Commission by giving it subpoena power.

Asked about Barron’s bill Tuesday, Riley said he expects it to meet significant opposition and not pass. But if it does come to his desk, Riley said, “Then I will veto it.”

Barron, chairman of the Senate’s powerful Rules Committee, said his bill is unrelated to the recent convictions of two Democratic legislators on charges involving misuse of their offices.

But the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, state Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the Legislature shouldn’t be limiting the Ethics Commission.

“The trust of taxpayers has been greatly damaged by recent convictions of elected officials and it is crucial that we work to regain that trust through the passage of stronger anti-corruption legislation,” he said.

The five-member Ethics Commission receives complaints from citizens about public officials and employees. The commission’s staff reviews complaints and closes those without evidence. Others are sent to the commission, which decides whether there is probable cause to believe the state ethics law was violated. If so, the commission sends the case to a county district attorney or the state attorney general to investigate and possibly bring criminal charges.

About eight years ago, the commission received a complaint about one of Barron’s businesses supplying windows to a subcontractor on a building project at Auburn University, where Barron was on the board of trustees. The commission’s staff decided Barron had done nothing improper.

“It drug on for more than two years,” Barron said.

Barron said he opposes the governor’s proposal to give the commission subpoena power. He said the commission is only doing a preliminary inquiry. If it refers a case to a district attorney or attorney general, that official has subpoena power to gather evidence, he said.