Luther Strange: Ethics commission decision blurs lines between legislators, lobbyists

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Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and state prosecutors have asked the state Ethics Commission to reconsider an advisory opinion that they said could undermine enforcement of state ethics law.

Strange and Scott Anderson, president of the Alabama District Attorneys’ Association, sent a Sept. 10 letter asking commissioners to revisit advice given to Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, last month. Commissioners said Todd could advocate and vote on bills backed by her employer, an organization that works on gay and lesbian issues, as long as there wasn’t a financial interest involved.

Strange said he feared the opinion blurs the lines between legislator and lobbyist. The opinion was cited by Indicted House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, as he seeks to dismiss ethics charges against him.

Commissioners in the 4-1 opinion said Todd, may “advocate” for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, and “may sponsor and vote on legislation affecting the LGBT community while serving as the Director of HRC Alabama, as her advocacy actions will be issue-based and will not provide any personal benefit to herself or her employer.”

“After careful review of this opinion, which practically permits an interest group to pay a legislator to lobby the legislature and state and local governments, we find the ethics commission analysis to be fatally flawed and ask the Ethics Commission to withdraw and reconsider this opinion,” Strange and Anderson wrote.

Strange said he wanted to be clear that his concern was about the “larger ramifications” and was not an attack on Todd or her employer, the Human Rights Campaign. Todd is the state’s only openly gay legislator, and for years has been one of the most outspoken advocates on gay and lesbian issues. She took the job with the Human Rights Campaign this year.

The opinion has become a focal point in the Hubbard case. The powerful Republican faces 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his public offices to benefit his businesses and clients.

One of the charges against Hubbard accuses him of voting on budget language that could have benefited a client. The 2013 budget approved by the House included language that set out the requirements for a pharmacy benefit manager if the Alabama Medicaid Agency ever decided to hire a company to handle prescriptions. The Bessemer-based American Pharmacy Cooperative, Inc. — which was a client of Hubbard’s — was the only group that met the requirements, according to prosecutors.

The state Medicaid agency did not ask for that language, and only one company would qualify under the language — the Bessemer company — State Health Officer Don Williamson said last year.

Hubbard’s defense argued that he did not have a conflict of interest because he was being paid to promote the company in the state and that any gain to APCI was “theoretical.” His defense also disputed that APCI was the only qualified company.

Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton said he will present the attorney general’s request for reconsideration to the commission next month.

“We are always concerned about getting the answer right, and for that reason value the input of all those affected by the Act which certainly includes the Office of the Attorney General and the state’s District Attorneys.

Albritton also noted however, that “Rep. Todd specifically stated in her request that she would not lobby state officials.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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