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MONDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Ethics Commission should stand by complaint policy

State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, wants the Alabama Ethics Commission to throw out a complaint against him because it's based on newspaper stories.

Birmingham radio talk show hosts Russ and Dee Fine filed the complaint, using information they learned from The Birmingham News. The News had reported that members of Mr. Sanders' family worked for nonprofit groups that received, with his help, millions in state education money.

By a 4-1 vote, the Ethics Commission decided Wednesday to keep investigating the complaint, but now Mr. Sanders' lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss. The motion argues that reading information in the newspaper doesn't give anyone "actual knowledge of the allegations contained in the complaint," as the state ethics law requires.

In writing the ethics law, the Legislature made it too difficult to initiate investigations against public officials (such as its own members) with that requirement and a prohibition against anonymous complaints. The Ethics Commission itself can't start a complaint except by unanimous vote.

To its credit, since 1995 the commission has accepted complaints based on news stories.

"That may be the only way the public has knowledge of these actions taking place," said Jim Sumner, director of the commission.

The commission should not back off that position. A well-done newspaper story may not constitute legal evidence that a crime occurred, but it certainly can raise enough questions to warrant an investigation.

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