Ward: Subpoena power key to successful ethics special session

By JAN GRIFFEY/Editor

COLUMBIANA — Shelby County’s legislative delegation heads to Montgomery on Dec. 8 to begin work on Gov. Bob Riley’s special session on ethics and campaign finance reform.

State Rep.-turned-State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, couldn’t be happier. He has been an outspoken advocate for strengthening the investigative powers of the state’s ethics commission for the last three years. Last year, his efforts helped get a bill out of the state House of Representatives, but it didn’t make it out of the state Senate.

“This special session will be totally open to the public. We will open on Wednesday at about 4 p.m. when we elect our leadership. Then, at 6 p.m., we will have a joint session with the governor, which will be followed by a public hearing,” Ward said. “Any citizen can come and talk at that hearing.”

In addition, citizens can be present and witness committee debate and every other part of the special session, he said.

On Dec. 9, the state Senate and House will separately begin committee debates on four ethics bills — eight bills total. Ward expects votes on the legislation to come in each group on Dec. 10. The following Monday, Dec. 13, Ward said the two bodies of the legislature will swap bills and debate what the other body passed.

Ward said the cornerstone of the legislation is a bill he is sponsoring to give the ethics committee the power to issue subpoenas.

“If we don’t pass that, none of the rest matters,” he said. “There’s lots of resistance to giving the commission subpoena power. Some think it will give the commission the ability to go on a witch hunt. However, there are safeguards against that in the bill. Four of the five ethics commissioners would have to vote to issue the subpoena.”

The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house appoint members to the ethics commission, all of whom are term limited. Those appointments must be confirmed by the senate, which in the past has held up appointments as a matter of politics, effectively shutting down the work of the ethics commission.

Proposed ethics reform legislation, Ward said, would require ethics commissioners to serve until their successor was appointed, thus allowing the commission’s work to continue.

“Subpoena power shouldn’t be taken lightly. For instance, I don’t want any legislative committee to have subpoena power. That would be the worst, worst kind of politics,” Ward said. “This is the biggest bill of my career, bigger than anything I’ve worked on before. This subpoena bill is my baby.”

Other aspects of ethics reform legislation to be considered during the special session include a bill to eliminate PAC-to-PAC campaign contributions.

“Some lobbyists have several PACs (political action committees), and they will move money from one PAC to another, then use that money to contribute to a candidate, thus hiding the real source of the money,” Ward said.

Also proposed is a cap of $25 on the amount of money a lobbyist can spend per day on a legislator and requiring reporting of all expenditures. At present, lobbyists can spend up to $250 per day on legislators without having to report spending those funds.

“Some people have been critical of the special session, saying we shouldn’t be spending the money right now on that. However, we can’t wait until March to do this. The window would be closed. By that time, lobbyists would have put so much pressure and influence on legislators, it would not happen in the regular session,” Ward said.