Special session on ethics a good idea

Published 10:50 am Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When I was first elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2002, I came to Montgomery as a rather naïve elected official. I had the opportunity to work with other elected officials over the years but was not accustomed to the strange world of the legislative process. My goal first session was to watch the legislative process and learn the ins and outs of governance before attempting to sponsor bills or becoming too vocal. To a large extent this learning period was beneficial to me.

But one issue troubling to me during that first session was the magnitude of power that outside influences had over the entire process. I saw how members of the legislature were even afraid to cast votes for fear of retribution from various associations of lobbying groups.

That mentality in the legislative process has to change if Alabama is ever going to make changes for the better. The only way to do this is to curb the amount of money that can be spent on a legislator or other elected official. Any special session must have this cap on expenditure at the top of our agenda.

Another issue was the fact that the Alabama Ethics Commission was an enforcement entity with no teeth because it did not have the power to subpoena neither witnesses nor documents that were relevant to a thorough investigation in cases of alleged wrongdoing by public officials. Basically, the Ethics Commission was created by the Legislature as window dressing that we were serious about corruption in Alabama.

I sponsored this legislation during several sessions, but it never passed both Houses.

Then there was the clandestine method of campaign finance known as PAC-to-PAC transfers of political donations. PACs (political action committees) grew out of a federal case in the mid-1970s where corporations were donating shareholders’ money directly to candidates. The court said corporate donations were no longer legal; however, political committees established within the corporation whose monies were derived from corporate employees giving voluntarily for “political action” would be permitted. PACs have since become 800-pound gorillas that have been masterful at hiding the real sources of campaign contributions. By the time $100,000 from a political action committee gets to a candidate, it has been passed through 10 or 12 PACs and comes in the form of three checks, all in differing amounts. Anyone who figured out the maze was probably a master at the Rubik’s Cube solution.

These weak campaign finance and ethics laws have plagued our state for years. That was then, and this is now.

Virtually every new member of the House and Senate elected last week campaigned on strengthening our ethics laws. Now that the new Legislature is in town, it’s time to get serious on the subject.

Not only should we have a special session, but each of us should agree to work without pay during this session to demonstrate our commitment to seeing these reforms enacted. This is our opportunity to prove we will turn rhetoric into reality.

A special session on ethics reform is needed now. Let’s start working as soon as possible to ban PAC-to-PAC transfers once and for all; to require Campaign Disclosure Reports to be filed online; to limit the amount of money a lobbyist spends on entertaining public official as well as publicly reporting the expenditures; granting subpoena power to the Ethics Commission.

Shining the light will be the best disinfectant possible in cleaning up state government and one I embrace as a capital idea.

Cam Ward is a senator in the Alabama Senate.