How the Ethics Commission works

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 25, 2001

A Butler County citizen said he has filed a complaint with the Alabama State Ethics Commission against Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris.

Noah Flowers Jr. said he filed the complaint because he is concerned about the behavior of Harris, the county's highest elected official. The matter now apparently rests in the hands of the Alabama State Ethics Commission.

The Commission follows up on all written complaints filed against public officials.

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&uot;We are probably the most accessible law enforcement agency of the state's government, but we are also the least known,&uot; said Chief Investigator Charles Aldridge of the Alabama Ethics Commission. &uot;I actually believe the work here at the commission goes unnoticed n but those who have filed complaints with us know exactly what we are doing.&uot;

Webster's dictionary defines &uot;ethics&uot; as: the study of standards of conduct and moral judgement; moral philosophy; the system or code of morals of a particular philosopher, religion group, profession, etc.

Alabama lawmakers, recognizing that certain standards must be adhered to, set out to establish a way of &uot;policing public officials&uot; when it adopted acts establishing an Ethics Commission.

As written by Legislative Acts of 1973, 1975, 1979 and 1995, a Code of Ethics was established in the State of Alabama. It is defined in Alabama's Code of 1975, Title 36, Section 25, Chapter 3:

&uot;There is hereby created a State Ethics Commission composed of five members, each of whom shall be a fair, equitable citizen of this state and of high moral character and ability&uot;

The code also designates the duties of a director to be appointed by the commission, and one of those is that he or she designate in writing a chief investigator, and a maximum of six full-time investigators &uot;who shall be and are hereby constituted as law enforcement officers of the State of Alabama with full and unlimited police power and jurisdiction to enforce the laws of the state pertaining to the operation and administration of the commission and this chapter. Investigators shall meet the requirements of the State of Alabama Peace Officers' Standards and Training Act.&uot;

It is these investigators of the Ethics Commission that follow through with all complaints filed in writing alleging violations of ethical conduct.

&uot;Most public officials and public employees understand if a complaint is filed with us, it will be followed through,&uot; Aldridge said. &uot;And we spend a great deal of time teaching them, as we are required by law, ethical conduct. We also teach in all of the state's police academies. Since beginning that practice, we have seen a sharp decline in ethics complaints.&uot;

David Green, one of the commission's investigators, and a 30-year-plus veteran of law enforcement, including being a retired Montgomery police officer, explained the procedure by which a complaint is handled.

&uot;When we receive a complaint, it must come to us in writing,&uot; Green said. &uot;We have a special form that the complainant must fill out, and on that form, it explains that a legal process is being initiated n before the complaint will even be considered, the complainant must sign that he or she understands they may be called in to testify, before the commission, and if needed, ultimately in a court of law.&uot;

Green said once the complaint is filled out and signed, it must be screened by the commission's legal department.

&uot;Our General Counsel determines if the allegations, once established as true, would be illegal,&uot; Green said. &uot;Once it leaves the legal department, it is received by the Chief Investigator n the chief then reviews it (the complaint) with agents, and it is assigned for investigation.&uot;

Green laughed as he said, &uot;We are fortunate in that our chief will even investigate cases himself.&uot;

Green said investigation is where the legwork of the complaint actually begins.

&uot;The agent assigned to the case travels to the area involved, and speaks to all witnesses involved in the complaint, and if, after gathering information surrounding the complaint, it is deemed necessary, a notification letter is sent to the respondent (a name designated by legislature to define the person in question in the complaint, because they are neither the complainant or yet a defendant). The letter is sent by registered mail, so we have a legal record that the respondent actually received the letter,&uot; Green said. &uot;The respondent must then come in and meet with the agent, and everything is laid out on the table n it is at this time the respondent becomes aware of the complaint, and all of the evidence presented against them, although they are not told who signed the complaint.&uot;

&uot;We will go just as far to prove someone innocent as we will to prove them guilty,&uot; said Aldridge. &uot;It is a 50-50 split.&uot;

Green said secrecy, which is ordered by the legislature parallel to the &uot;Grand Jury Secrecy Act,&uot; plays an important role in the scenario.

&uot;Secrecy is two-fold,&uot; Green said. &uot;In many situations, we handle complainants who have filed allegations against their superiors. If not for the secrecy, they (the complainants) could face repercussions from their superiors.&uot;

&uot;Once investigation of the case is complete, the agent presents it to the commission, during an executive session, because it is involving the discussion of a person's good name or character. The respondent has the opportunity to be at this session, either in person or accompanied by or represented by an attorney. They don't even actually have to be present,&uot; Green said.

In this closed session, the commission will cast a vote, deciding the route in which the case shall be handled.

&uot;There are three ways a case can be handled,&uot; Green said. &uot;It can be referred to the district attorney of jurisdiction or the attorney general. In the event of possible criminal charges, it would be referred to prosecution for their consideration. In the event there is not enough evidence to support probable cause, the commission can vote to take no action in the case. it can also be voted upon to be handled through administrative action,&uot; he said.

&uot;Administrative resolution must be at the request of the respondent,&uot; he said. &uot;If approved, the action can cause the respondent to be assessed with fines up to $1,000 per infraction, and they also can be ordered to pay restitution along with other stipulations,&uot; he said.

Chief Aldridge explained described a &uot;minor violation.&uot;

&uot;A minor violation can be anything up to and including a class-B felony,&uot; he said. &uot;In no other area of Alabama law can a situation such as this be resolved without criminal implications,&uot; Aldridge said. &uot;Anything involving less than $250 can be handled via administrative resolution.

Green emphasized unity in the commission's decision.

&uot;The case must receive a unanimous vote, any way it is handled,&uot; Green said. &uot;But once it is voted upon, it must go before the D.A. of jurisdiction or the A.G.'s office for either their approval or disapproval. If they approve it, the case must come back to the public meeting for its final action, which actually means two public meetings.&uot;

Green said the Ethics Commission meets on the first Wednesday of each month unless it is a legal holiday.