Going After 'Double Dippers'

March 30, 2007

It's an oddity of Alabama's governance structure that a college administrator who serves below the president could be in a position to direct funds to the institution and its leaders -- his or her bosses. In other words, the state allows employees of colleges and other public entities to also serve in government -- creating what has long been a sticky situation.

In the midst of investigations into Alabama's two-year college system that center around financial arrangements, Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, appears ready to take aim at the practice he calls "double dipping" by introducing a bill that could go as far as barring all legislators from holding concurrent college jobs.

"I believe it is wrong for elected officials to hold a second paying job with the state," Riley wrote on his Web site. "[Double dipping] represents a conflict of interest."

Added Tara Hutchinson, a Riley spokeswoman: "He has felt this should be addressed for some time, and with the recent media attention and with everything coming to light, it's the right time to address the issue."

Riley has not announced any details of the bill, such as whether it would cover employment at all state educational institutions or just some, such as the troubled two-year college system. Also unknown is whether legislation would bar future employment or mandate that current dual-public sector employees end their arrangements. Hutchinson said there is no timetable for the announcement.

The Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education said it is not commenting on the situation until specific legislation is announced.

The governor's interest comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of Alabama's two-year colleges. The system is under a criminal investigation for alleged corruption, and various officials have been accused of fraud and nepotism. The system's chancellor, Thomas E. Corts, who had stepped in after a long career in private higher education to try to clean up the situation, recently resigned, not long after his predecessor was removed following a discovery that members of his family had been on the system's payroll.

The most recent revelation, reported in several news outlets, is that State Rep. Ken Guin, the majority leader in Alabama's Democratically- controlled House, receives paychecks from two community colleges at the same time, often submitting the same work. Guin told the  Tuscaloosa News that he earmarks grant money only for K-12 schools. He did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

In recent days, several state legislators have come to the defense of the current arrangement. State Sen. Quinton Ross said it should be up to the public to determine who they want serving them.

"It's no secret that I'm a lifelong educator," said Ross, a Democrat, who is director of adult education at Trenholm State Technical College. "[The Governor] needs to find a new term because 'double dipping' doesn't work. Any member of the Legislature can have what is perceived as a conflict of interest.

"In light of what has gone on in the college system, the governor is trying to sway public opinion," he added. "This is an attempt to exclude a great portion of the population from being involved with the government."

James L. Sumner Jr., director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the issue is on the mind of Alabama taxpayers, who he said generally don't like the concept of people being publicly employed and serving in the Legislature. But he said that it is common and often harmless for, say, a county commissioner or a school board official to also hold another public office.

"Our position has always been, they're free to do that, just take leave time in order to fulfill public office duties," Sumner said. "The difficulty is, we just don't know [if they're following those guidelines]."

Sumner said he isn't sure that a proposed bill that bans public employees from serving in another state office would be constitutional.

"There are hurdles to get across; there's not a simple answer," he said. "How do you create a class of people who can't serve in public office?"

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