John Merrill: The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

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John MerrillI am disappointed to find myself, once again, in a position to ask what purpose the Alabama Ethics Commission serves to the people of this state. To whom are the elected officials or those seeking public office to look to for ethical political leadership? The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws and regulations it is charged with enforcing, with consistency.

When campaigns file their fundraising disclosures with the Secretary of State’s office, they are required to file on a given date no later than 11:59 p.m. When candidates and political action committees (PACs) fail to file these reports in a timely manner, the law requires the Secretary of State’s Office to issue a civil penalty based on the amount of contributions and expenditures from that reporting period. In the event that a candidate or PAC wishes to appeal the penalty, the Secretary of State’s office is required to send those requests to the Alabama Ethics Commission, allowing members of the Commission to determine whether the penalty should be upheld or not.

At three previous Ethics Commission meetings, in February, April and June of 2018, the commission waived fines on 12 appeals that were filed outside the 14-day window allowed by law.

However, during the Commission’s meeting on Sept. 5, they declined to hear cases filed outside the 14-day window, saying they didn’t have jurisdiction and declining to rule on whether that penalty would stand — despite having previously done so previously 12 times in 2018.

It the position of the Secretary of State’s Office that these specific matters were improperly set aside and should be reinstated by the Commission. And, in spite of a request from counsel for the Ethics Commission, the Secretary of State’s Office will continue to adhere to the requirements of state law which clearly establishes the Commission as the sole body with authority to overturn a penalty issued for a campaign or political action committee filing a financial disclosure form after the due date.

Previously, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton stated, “the commissioners reviewed those files and discussed them in detail before our meeting. So they reviewed every one of them as they have for every meeting.” If that is true, then why have they just now become aware of these appeal date issues? Each appeal delivered to the Alabama Ethics Commission is delivered as a file which includes each file that was not timely filed and a copy of the date the appeal was filed.

The Code of Alabama directs the Secretary of State’s Office to work in conjunction with the Alabama Ethics Commission to administer the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Therefore, without communication and cooperation between our agencies, as well as the commission’s consistent application of the laws and rules established by the legislature, the FCPA does not work.

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John Merrill is the Secretary of State of Alabama, a position which he has held since 2015. He is a member of the Republican Party.

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