Alabama Ethics Commission could answer critical question for nonprofit board members
More than eight years after the Alabama legislature passed a major overhaul of the state’s ethics laws, some important aspects of it continue to get ironed out.
Among those are the requirements imposed on nonprofit board members.
The Alabama Ethics Commission, however, could provide some clarity for them when it issues an advisory opinion for the Birmingham Airport Authority at its meeting on Wednesday.
Under Alabama law, a principal is defined as “a person or business which employs, hires, or otherwise retains a lobbyist.”
Numerous restrictions and requirements accompany the designation.
For example, principals may not provide things of value to public officials or public employees. And principals are required to file quarterly reports with the Alabama Ethics Commission.
For legal experts, the lines have become “fuzzy” as to whether a principal is an organization or a person — or both.
In former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the determination of a lower court that a person working for a principal could also be a principal, themselves.
And, recently, a group representing nonprofits across the state sought further clarification on the reporting requirements of individual board members of organizations considered principals.
The Alabama Association of Nonprofits asked the Alabama Ethics Commission to confirm that individual board members of nonprofits that employ lobbyists did not have to file quarterly ethics reports.
The commission declined to address the question when it issued its advisory opinion.
Yellowhammer News has learned the Birmingham Airport Authority presented the same question — among several — to the commission in its own request for an advisory opinion.
Tom Albritton, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, confirmed that the commission plans to issue an advisory opinion to the Birmingham Airport Authority as part of its agenda.
The potentially wide-ranging impact of the law on board members serving their communities on nonprofits, which also happen to employ lobbyists, is something one legal expert thinks has not drawn enough attention.
“This might seem like an inside baseball issue so why should anyone care?” asked Matt McDonald at a recent ethics forum. “Well, if you serve on the board of a trade association or a non-profit hospital board or you are a trustee of a small college, it may impact you.”
McDonald, a partner at the Jones Walker law firm, can foresee a host of unintended consequences if individual board members were considered principals.
“If you are in a chain of command on a board that interacts with a lobbyist, if that turns you into a principal, then that has a lot of ramifications that I think are unintended,” he pointed out. “Because you’re not just a principal for dealing with public officials or public employees for issues that might impact that non-profit board, you are a principal for every purpose. You are principal for the town you live in interacting with your city council person, planning commission. Every single action you have now with a public official or public employee becomes a regulated activity by the code of ethics.”
The lack of clarity in the law could have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to get involved with well-intended groups, according to McDonald.
“We want people to be involved in their communities and be involved in non-profits and things like that. So we don’t need to have this thing be so fuzzy that we’re going to deter people from being involved in their communities. We need to have good ethics laws, and we need to have good, qualified people who want to be public officials.”
Read Alabama Association of Nonprofits’ request for an advisory opinion:
Tim Howe is an owner and editor of Yellowhammer News