Sanders faces ethics charges

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Selma Times-Journal

On Dec. 7, the Alabama Ethics Commission will conduct a hearing to investigate a complaint filed against State Senator Hank Sanders, D-Selma.

He is accused of using his position in the Legislature to steer state money to groups run by members of his family.

Email newsletter signup

Sanders has held office since the 1980s and is considered one of the most powerful men in the Senate due to the size of the budget he oversees.

The Ethics Commission reviews complaints filed against public officials. If the panel finds probable cause of wrongdoing, the panel may fine the individual or recommend prosecution by the attorney general or local district attorney.

The commission expressly forbids false reporting for the purpose of influencing legislation. Alabama ethics law forbids state officials from using their positions for their own financial gain or the gain of their families.

Sanders said any state money that went to those agencies, including the National Voting Rights Museum, founded by Rose Sanders, his wife, went into separate accounts not used for payroll. Of 15 area corporations set up by Rose, 5 to 6 are funded by the state.

A number of them deal with education and are staffed by their children.

The Voting Rights Museum is a private museum and receives state monies for operation.

Although state money benefits organizations run by his family, Sanders contends his family hasn’t benefited because the state money didn’t pay their salaries at the nonprofit organizations.

Like Clinton, Sanders may face defining what &8220;is&8221; is.

Five nonprofit groups with ties to Sanders received more than $4.3 million in state money from 1996 to 2003, according to a Birmingham News review.

Sanders is chairman of the state education budget committee, which oversees decisions about how $5.2 billion in education funds are spent.

Museums, public institutions and parks are funded through the education budget and as the law is presently structured, Sanders is free to distribute money to an organization that falls into those categories whether or not it is education-specific.

School children in Selma are required to bring their own toilet paper and Kleenex to school for lack of educational funding.

Some of the money going to the familial nonprofits was written into state budgets and voted on by all members of the Alabama Legislature.

Some came as state grants that Sanders helped direct to the organizations.

In 1997, Sanders was cleared of a similar complaint that he used his position as chairman to steer hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to community groups incorporated by his wife.

The commission unanimously found insufficient facts to rule that Sanders broke state law.

In his newsletter and in an interview Thursday, Sanders assumed that Selma City councilman Cecil Williamson filed the complaint.

Williamson denies authoring the complaint.

&8220;Senator Sanders is a liar if he said I filed the complaint.

I did not know anything about it until I read about it in The Birmingham News.

I can document almost $7 million that Sanders has funneled to his wife’s organizations since 1993.

But I did not file this complaint.

I expect that the person who filed it will need to be present at the hearing.&8221;

The Ethics Commission does not reveal investigations before it makes a decision, but Sanders said he wrote about the issue because some people already knew about it and he wanted to be honest with his readers.

Sanders plans to run for re-election next year.

In his newsletter he wrote that he did not want to criticize the Ethics Commission, but &8220;I wish this complaint had been investigated in 2003 instead of 2005, less than a year before the primary election.&8221;