If I had to bake an “Alabama Corruption Cake” the recipe would probably go something like this: 2 parts shiftless opportunists, 2 parts complicit appointed boards and agencies, 1 part disinterested Attorney General’s Office, 1 part ineffective Ethics Commission and 2 pinches of one-party rule. Blend thoroughly, bake for 200 years and ice generously with inept and partisan press coverage. Serves 5 million.
Maybe the cake ought to be served with a nice cold scoop of public indifference as well.
Regardless of how it’s plated, we’re eating piles of it on a routine basis.
The latest example is what’s taken place at the Alabama State Bar over the past few years. This is the state agency that regulates the state’s lawyers and oversees their licensure. And it’s been a real (expletive) show.
A few weeks ago, someone called me to essentially say, “You guys look like you’ll go after stories everyone else ignores. So here’s one. Go look at the Examiners of Public Accounts report filed in May for the Alabama State Bar. Also, if you’re not aware, in 2020, the State Bar’s executive director was found guilty of 17 ethics violations.”
The caller knew what he/she/they/them was talking about. The Examiner’s report took 15 seconds to find and detailed several areas in which the State Bar had taken unauthorized actions or failed to follow state regulations. I say “detailed,” but the report took great pains to try to hide the identities of people who were paid hefty sums after resigning, as well as the names of lawyers who they said were overpaid by the State Bar. Basically, the report points out problems but doesn’t really divulge the reasons for them, who authorized these activities or who made money off of them.
Next, I Googled former State Bar Executive Director Phillip McCallum. One short, lonely news story from a Montgomery TV station popped up indicating he’d paid $100,000 in fines for 17 ethics violations. “How had this not been widely reported across the state?” I thought. I went to the Ethics Commission’s website and searched their decisions and easily found the minutes of two meetings where McCallum’s violations were discussed and his guilt announced.
But, in standard Ethics Commission form, almost no actual information was offered. McCallum committed 17 “minor” violations of state ethics law. He had asked for an administrative resolution to this — in other words, he asked that he not become the subject of a criminal investigation by the Attorney General’s Office. AG Steve Marshall’s Office agreed there was no reason to investigate the head of a state agency who had broken state law 17 times and kicked it back to the Ethics Commission for punishment.
McCallum’s fines and restitution added up to $110,000. I can’t recall ever seeing the Ethics Commission hitting anyone for a number that big. But he apparently scratched a check and sailed off into the distance.
So what we don’t know at this point is a lot more than what we do know. The Ethics Commission didn’t offer a single detail about what laws he’d been found guilty of breaking or how they were broken. Using state payroll data, it’s clear the person known simply as “Employee 1” in the Examiners’ report is McCallum, and he was paid his salary for a couple of months after resigning. He also continued receiving perks for an even longer time. For some reason, about 10 months after his resignation, the State Bar paid him another $37,000.
Two other employees were paid a combined total of roughly $100,000 by the state agency after resigning. The two also appear to have signed unauthorized nondisclosure agreements, according to the Examiners’ report.
Were the overpaid lawyers part of McCallum’s defense? We don’t know. Were more of the violations in that report related to trying to have this embarrassment quietly disappear? Not sure.
I reached out to numerous current and former presidents of the Bar Association and the commission that oversees the State Bar, but got crickets. Current Executive Director Terri Lovell wrote back the week before Lagniappe ran the story and claimed she would follow up on my questions, but she didn’t.
A lawsuit filed last week against the State Bar and McCallum by former employee Katherine Church may offer the only insight into some of what was happening. She claimed that McCallum was routinely making her take care of his personal errands and tasks while on state time. That’s a no-no. Perhaps more troubling, though, was her description of a “two-year bump” that had been used to jack up long-term employees’ retirement benefits before they left.
The way the “bump” was described to me by former employees is that an employee’s wages were increased 10 percent one year and an additional 10 percent the following year. Since Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) benefits are calculated using the highest three years of salary average multiplied by years of service, such a “bump” would increase both of those factors. It would also be considered retirement “spiking” by the RSA and is not legal.
The State Bar also wouldn’t respond to my questions about the “two-year bump.”
Good thing the AG’s Office saw no reason to investigate McCallum’s behavior.
Needless to say, all of this is made worse by the fact that the State Bar is run by lawyers who are supposed to know and follow the law. McCallum’s behavior not only appears to have been swept under the rug by the attorney general (lawyer), Ethics Commission (run by a lawyer) and the State Bar (lots of lawyers), he received zero punishment from the State Bar.
Not only was McCallum not disbarred for breaking state ethics laws 17 times, but the State Bar kept making unauthorized payments to him. And now they won’t talk about it.
It’s been more than a week since Lagniappe ran this story, but so far my fellow members of the state media haven’t written a word about it. The rest of the state’s reporters have ignored more than 20 stories I’ve written over the past year about similar behavior at the University of Alabama and stories we ran about Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton’s kids receiving over $100,000 in tuition from a charitable trust he helps oversee.
Given that my caller indicated other news organizations were contacted about the mess at the State Bar and never wrote anything, I’m not expecting them to change their tastes now.
I suppose we could just say it’s the icing on the cake.