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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Could Bob Riley Develop a Palin Problem?

An Alaska legislative panel recently concluded that Governor Sarah Palin unlawfully abused her power by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper.

That raises this question: Could Alabama Governor Bob Riley face a similar inquiry because of my firing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)?

Let me say up front that, given our state's political climate, I think it is unlikely that Riley or people close to him would face any investigation regarding my termination. Experience has taught me that Republicans can get away with most anything in Alabama, and that's why they are so corrupt. I see nothing that makes me think that is going to change anytime soon.

But based on actual state law, and the facts as they continue to come forward, I think our question above is a legitimate one.

Under Alabama law, it appears that such an inquiry would be conducted by the Alabama Ethics Commission. If my experience with other regulatory bodies in our state is any indication--Alabama State Bar, Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission--the Ethics Commission probably is not anxious to rock any boats. In other words, for regular citizens like me, it's pretty worthless--or at least that's my guess.

But let's compare the Palin situation in Alaska to what I have experienced in Alabama.

Palin was investigated under Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a), which says in pertinent part:

The legislature reaffirms that each public official holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust.

That's the law Palin was found to have violated, and it seems pretty straighforward.

The report focused largely on the role Palin's husband, Todd, played in trying to get Trooper Mike Wooten fired. But it held Palin accountable for the actions of her subordinates. Here is the key passage:

The evidence supports the conclusion that Governor Palin, at the least, engaged in "official action" by her inactions if not her active participation or assistance to her husband in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired [and there is evidence of her active participation].

The bottom line? The Alaska legislative panel found that the governor was accountable for actions by her supporters and subordinates in trying to get a public employee fired.

What's the situation in Alabama? Our ethics law is found in Title 36, Section 25 of the Code of Alabama. The purpose of the law is defined at Section 36-25-2, and it includes language similar to that in the Alaska statute.

Two sections of the Alabama ethics law jump out at me:

* Section 36-25-5 addresses "Use of Official Position or Office for Personal Gain." Personal gain does not appear to be clearly defined, but a "thing of value" does include "favors," such as firing someone you want to have fired. Alaska law did not require a showing that Palin benefited financially from her actions, and Alabama law appears to take a similar approach.

* Section 36-25-24(c) involves discharging or discriminating against a public employee. Here is the key passage:

No public employee shall file a complaint or OTHERWISE INITIATE ACTION AGAINST A PUBLIC OFFICIAL OR OTHER PUBLIC EMPLOYEE without a good faith basis for believing the the complaint to be true and accurate.

My research indicates that people who worked for and supported Bob Riley initiated action against me, a public employee, that led to me being fired. And having sat through my employee grievance hearing at UAB, I know that no one involved in the entire process had a good-faith basis for believing the charges against me--that I used public time and resources for political purposes--were true.

Would the Alabama Ethics Commission hold Bob Riley accountable for the unlawful actions of his supporters?

Well, the head of the Alabama Ethics Commission is a fellow named Jim Sumner. Is he that rare breed in Alabama--a watchdog with a spine?

Perhaps we will be finding out in the not-too-distant future.

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