Ethics ruling will affect charities

Published 3:00 am Saturday, December 3, 2016

It is Christmas time, and since Alabama is one of the most charitable states in the nation, I would expect that many of us are in the giving mood and plan to help many worthy causes across our great state.  Unfortunately, it appears that some recent rulings by the Alabama Ethics Commission are going to make it more difficult for charities across the state to raise the funds that they need to serve our communities.

Many charities in Alabama are concerned that an unintended consequence of recent Commission interpretations of the ethics law is that it could restrict the ability of public officials and employees and their family members to be involved in fundraising for charities and other organizations that they support, including public schools and universities.

You may not be aware, but there are over 300,000 public officials and employees at the state and local level who are covered by Alabama’s ethics law. Many of these individuals are leaders in their communities, who are appointed to positions of public responsibility such as school boards and water boards.  Not surprisingly, these same individuals are often also involved in supporting a number of worthy causes and charities by helping with their fundraising and serving on their boards.

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The problem is, over the past year or so, in an effort to implement what they seem to believe the law requires, the Ethics Commission has issued guidance that places restrictions on the ability of public officials and employees to help charities by seeking donations from various individuals, businesses, and organizations. 

While their intentions are no doubt good, the broad language of these rulings has caused major issues for charities across the state.  This is because a number of those charities rely on individuals, who happen to be part-time members of public boards who are covered by these ethics laws.  As a result, charities are asking anyone involved in a public body not to fundraise for them no matter how much they have done so in the past.  I do not expect that anyone was thinking about these situations when they amended the ethics laws back in 2010, but it appears that this is another one of those unintended consequences of a well-intentioned law. 

To make matters worse, under the Commission’s interpretations of these laws, the restrictions on charity fundraising also seem to apply to the family members of these 300,000 public servants who are raising money for a charity.  This means that these rulings affect the ability of many more Alabamians.  There are probably close to one million folks who help raise money for the charities that they support.

Hopefully, the Commission will clear up this confusion.  However, if they do not, I expect that the outcry will be so great that the Legislature will take action. 

Remember that this is not the first time we have had problems with broad interpretations of the ethics laws at Christmastime. 

Back in December 2011, you may recall, the Ethics Commission issued rulings that raised a lot of questions and concerns about the ability of public school teachers to accept Christmas gifts from students under these same ethics laws.  The concerns arose then because of some of the changes to the law that had gone into effect earlier in 2011. 

The Commission’s rulings in 2011 did not, in the end, clear things up very much for students and their teachers in time for Christmas.  However, in the following legislative session in 2012, the Legislature amended the ethics law to make it easier for students to give Christmas gifts to public school teachers and coaches.  The legislative fix was needed to address an unintended consequence of the law.

I think we are all hoping this current problem for charitable fundraising is resolved by the Ethics Commission in time for Christmas.  We do not need our charities and other worthy causes to suffer an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned law.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist.  His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers.  He served 16 years in the state legislature.  Steve may be reached at