In December 2010, the Alabama Legislature passed sweeping ethics legislation. This alert is focused on the primary changes to Alabama’s lobbying and gift laws. For most entities, two new provisions will have the greatest potential effect and will require the most thoughtful consideration:
- The expansion of the definition of lobbying to include “promoting or attempting to influence the awarding of a grant or contract with any department or agency of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of state government.”1 (emphasis added); and
- The prohibition on any public official or employee (state, county and local – approximately 290,000 people in Alabama) soliciting or receiving “anything” from any person (not just lobbyists or principals) “for the purpose of influencing official action. . .” 2 (emphasis added).
At this point, the Alabama Ethics Commission (“the Commission”) has issued only two advisory opinions. Since the Commission intends to interpret the law through advisory opinions, much of the interpretation is forthcoming. In addition, legislation has been introduced to clarify the language prohibiting the provision of “anything” for the purpose of influencing official action to read: “anything for the purpose of corruptly influencing official action. . .” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, this part of the law becomes effective March 16, 2011 (other portions were effective January 1, 2011), thereby requiring immediate compliance in the absence of legislative clarification.
Major Changes in the Legislation
The legislation makes the following major changes:
- The two changes discussed above.
- Changes the exceptions to the definition of “thing of value”
- Places a per occurrence and an annual limitation on the value of food and beverages that principals and lobbyists may provide to public officials and public employees in certain settings
- Establishes an ethics training requirement for lobbyists and principals (effective January 1, 2011)
Provides the Ethics Commission with subpoena power
Changes Not Included
While the ethics law makes numerous changes, it did not make other changes that were originally proposed or that could have been proposed:
- Fails to ban explicitly all food or gifts from principals and lobbyists3
- Fails to require the reporting of all expenditures on public officials and public employees
- Fails to change the information reported by lobbyists and principals
Recommended Compliance Steps
As a result of these changes, it is recommended that entities conduct the following activities:
- Review the definitions of lobbying4 and lobbyist5 to ensure compliance with the law
- Determine whether the expanded definition of lobbying to include promoting or attempting to influence certain grant and contracting activities with state government requires anyone associated with the entity to register as a lobbyist
- Establish an internal education and compliance program (if not in place already)
- Consider a gift ban to all state and local public officials and employees until the Commission or Legislature provides additional guidance