AG's trip shines light on ethics law
King's use of Alabama Power's skybox at Braves' game spurs call for stronger rules
By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY — Attorney General Troy King's free use of an Alabama Power skybox at an Atlanta Braves game last summer, which was not reported to the Alabama Ethics Commission until recently, highlights the need to strengthen ethics laws in the state, officials and ethics specialists said Thursday.
While King and Alabama Power officials said the paid trip was not improper, it turned attention to current rules that require a person or group to file a report with the ethics commission only if more than $250 is spent in any one day on a public official.
Melvin Cooper, who became Alabama's first director of the State Ethics Commission in 1973, said the $250 cap is ridiculous and that legislators should make lowering it to no more than $25-$50 one of their top priorities in the upcoming session.
University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill said the $250 limit, which adds up to $91,250 annually, is too high and leaves too much "wiggle room" for cases like King's to occur.
"Obviously it doesn't look very good to consumers," said Hamill, who has studied the ethics of tax laws and other issues. "Our ethics laws are too weak. Lobbyists have too much flexibility in terms of wining and dining our legislators and we need to tighten up our ethics laws."
Gov. Bob Riley, who has called the current system "outrageous," said Thursday he will introduce a bill to make any elected official report anything they receive.
"An easy way to do it is make everyone report everything," Riley said. "If it's a cup of coffee, just list it."
Alabama Power spokeswoman Carrie Kurlander said Julian Smith, a governmental relations employee, learned from the Kings that the choir at their church, First Baptist in Montgomery, had been asked to sing the national anthem at a July 28 Braves game. She said the Kings did not ask for anything, and that Smith extended an invitation for the choir to use the skybox.
King's wife, Paige, is a member of the choir, and King was given 14 tickets, worth $45 each, to distribute to his family and others from the choir, which ended up canceling the trip because too few people signed up to go. The choir, which had sung the national anthem at a Braves game in 2005 with about 100 members participating, had two big church events that conflicted with the July 28 game, music minister Chip Colee said. Colee formerly was music minister at First Baptist Church of Decatur.
Kurlander said the company didn't retract the offer after the trip was canceled, and three families from the church, including King's, decided to attend the game. The free use of the skybox was first reported by The Birmingham News; Alabama Power filed its report with the ethics office after the newspaper inquired about the trip.
Kurlander said the trip wasn't originally reported to ethics officials because King's family only used five tickets, which totaled $225 and fell below the $250 daily reporting limit. Letters outlining the costs of the trip were filed to the commission on Jan. 12 to "clear up any question," she said.
"They weren't filed right away because we fully believed we were in compliance based on our legal counsel and we still do believe that," Kurlander said. "We intentionally do not go over the $250 daily reporting because we are well aware of the scrutiny the legislature gives on reporting over that limit so we never want to do anything to trigger that."
Kurlander said the company did not feel it had given all 14 tickets to King, rather five tickets to King and nine tickets to the others.
Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner, who said he could only speak generally and not about a specific case, said the commission considers who benefits from gifts.
"If the benefit of the entertainment is for one person, essentially one person who is able to control the access to a skybox for that event, then it would be the commission's view that the entire benefit could be attributed to that single public official," he said.
Cooper, who also attends First Baptist Church where King teaches Sunday school, said elected officials should take pains to avoid situations that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
"I found out over 20 years that perception is over 90 percent of the problem. If the general public sees something, perceives something to be wrong, for them it is wrong. It doesn't matter what the law is," he said.
The attorney general represents customers of Alabama Power before the Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility.
King said he and his family could have sat in the stands instead of the skybox, but it's not a violation of law for public officials to accept gifts and he's being unfairly criticized.
"If more people would spend time with people they go to church with, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir (and) at baseball games and (going to) children's puppet theaters with their kids, Alabama would be a better place, not a worse place," he said.
King pointed out that he reimbursed Smith and S. Eason Balch, an attorney at a firm that represents Alabama Power, for $486.00 — his family's portion of a $1,262.64 food bill.
"I'm very aware that I am a public official. That is why I paid for my food, that is why I inquired about what the restrictions were," he said. "We have tried to go above and beyond what is required."
King faced ethics questions last fall when he removed himself from the state's investigation of the two-year college system after it was revealed he had asked fired chancellor Roy Johnson to hire the mother of one of his staff attorneys.
Barbara Evans, executive director of consumer watchdog group Alabama Watch, said the latest incident concerning King is "a symptom of a larger problem" and the state needs an independent Office of Consumer Affairs like one in Georgia.
"This guy is supposed to be the epitome of honesty — he's prosecuting other people," she said. "In the middle of a prosecution he did this, in the middle of a prosecution he's trying to get favors. Even the least educated consumer can tell you that this is more than a mistake. It's a level of arrogance that is unacceptable because he obviously thought he could get away with it."
Cooper said he has watched King's political ascension and believes he has a bright future ahead of him with no more ethical dilemmas.
"The media has done him a favor because I think Troy will be a fine attorney general and you won't see this happening again," he said. "Once burned, it's somebody else's fault. Twice burned, it's your fault."
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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