Outgoing Gov. Bob Riley signed seven new ethics laws Monday, calling them a foundation that future state officials must build upon to strengthen the public's shaken trust in state government and give Alabama a reputation as a state where corruption is not tolerated.
Legislators passed the bills last week after Riley summoned them for a special session. Monday's bill-signing was the final such ceremony of Riley's eight-year tenure.
The new ethics standards were put in place after corruption scandals in two-year colleges and Jefferson County sewer projects that led to guilty pleas or convictions against several public officials, including a mayor of Birmingham, a two-year college chancellor, and three legislators. In addition, two current legislators and two former legislators are awaiting trial on charges accusing them of buying and selling votes on a pro-gambling bill.
"It was unfortunate that Alabama had gained a reputation of being a corrupt state because Alabama and Alabamians do not deserve that label," House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said, during the ceremony.
Riley said the seven new laws will change Alabama's political traditions and the state's image, but the Legislature shouldn't stop with the seven.
"We built a foundation — a foundation we can continue to grow. I want Alabama to be the state every other state wants to be like," he told more than a dozen Republican legislators who sponsored the bills for him.
The bills place limits, for the first time, on how much lobbyists and the people who hire them can spend entertaining public officials; strengthen the investigative ability of the State Ethics Commission by giving it subpoena power; require ethics training for elected officials and lobbyists; and ban the transfer of campaign funds between political action committees, a popular way to disguise who is giving to a candidate.
The package also requires people who lobby the executive and judicial branches for contracts and grants to register with the Ethics Commission like legislative lobbyists do; bans the hiding of legislators' pork projects in the state budgets; prohibits legislators from holding a second state job after November 2014; and prohibits public employees from using payroll deductions to fund political activities by the groups that represent them.
"It's the best Christmas present the people of Alabama could get," said Melvin Cooper of Prattville.
Cooper became the first executive director of the State Ethics Commission after the Legislature created it in 1973 and he served until 1995. He said repeated efforts to overhaul Alabama's anti-corruption laws had failed until the special session.
It was Riley's final session, but the first session for the Republican majority that took over the Legislature in the election Nov. 2.
Lawmakers passed the Republican governor's bills mostly the way he wanted them. Only one bill, limiting spending by lobbyists and the people who hire them, was more lenient than he proposed.
It says a lobbyist can spend no more than $25 on one occasion and $150 in a year on entertaining a public official. The person or group that hires the lobbyist is limited to $50 on one occasion and $250 in a year. The law exempts widely attended events where a dozen or more officials are invited.
Jim Sumner, the current executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the board hopes to use opinions and regulations to make sure the law is not abused. If it is, the commission will propose changes under Alabama's next governor, Robert Bentley, he said.