Over the past weekend, Kyle Whitmire of Al. com and The Birmingham News (Sunday), reported on attendance by a number of Alabama legislators at conferences sponsored by The Alabama Lender’s Association for the last two years at posh resort destinations: Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi (2013) and The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama (2014). A previous Whitmire article appeared on July 12 about legislators attending the Alabama Lenders Association June 2016 conference at Grove Park Inn in Ashville, N. C.
The articles raised questions about the propriety of such junkets, especially challenging their delayed reporting by the association and their prior approval by the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Three members of the Blount County legislative delegation were included among a group of about 20 other legislators who attended one or more of those conferences: District 9 Sen. Clay Scofield, District 11 Rep. Randall Shedd, and District 34 Rep. David Standridge (pictured left to right above).
After interviewing each legislator, The Blount Countian asked them to submit a statement concerning the conferences, explaining their participation to constituents. Below are several generalities common to the conversations with legislators, though not all are covered in detail in their statements. Their statements follow.
• Legislators say their attendance was cleared in advance by the Alabama Ethics Commission, based on a description of the event and costs to be covered submitted to the Ethics Commission by the Alabama Lender’s Association.
• The meetings are informational in nature, with speakers addressing important developments in the lending industry. This year, for example, sessions focused on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and extensive new regulations devolving from it.
• Legislators are usually invited to speak on topics in which they have expertise, based on their leadership and/or committee assignments. Their meals and lodging expenses, but not travel, are covered as a part of their attendance and participation.
• Legislators say no undue influence was exerted on them, and their votes on specific legislation were not solicited.
• Such conferences are sponsored by a number of different groups including industry and trade associations like the Alabama Lender’s Association as well as organizations representing various other interests such as general business, law enforcement, education, farmers, county commissions, and others.
• Attendance at such meetings is routine for legislators and, in fact, may be considered as a part of the job of representing their constituents and learning about important aspects of the various interests and areas of endeavor engaged in the governing process. All three legislators representing Blount County emphasized the value of learning about the various groups and industries who sponsor such conferences and their contribution to the economies of their districts.
Clay Scofield: “I attended the (Alabama Lenders Association) conference because the topics of discussion were the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations that are coming down from Washington. These regulations will have a huge impact on people’s access to capital through the lending process, and serving on the banking committee, I need to learn as much about them as possible. People and businesses must have access to capital for upward mobility and for economic growth. It is a fundamental aspect of any capitalist economy.
“The Alabama Ethics Commission approved the trip, so I decided to attend. The venue was a nice place, but if the topics covered were the same, I would have attended the conference if it was at a Motel 6. Anyone that knows me knows I’m not much of a golf and spa guy. I had multiple constituents there as well and I learned a lot about how their businesses worked to benefit our area. I also spoke during one of the sessions and talked about my Amendment 2 on the ballot that will protect Alabama’s State Parks.” Randall Shedd: “I was invited to speak at the Alabama Lenders Association Conference, which was in North Carolina this year. I serve on the House Financial Services Committee, and therefore this was an opportunity for us to learn from each other about their industry. For example, I learned this group does NOT include payday lenders. The trip was reviewed and approved by the Alabama Ethics Commission. I didn’t play golf or get a massage at the spa. I went to speak. I could have charged lodging and meals to the state or let the lenders association pay for them. I chose to let them pay my expenses instead of the taxpayers.” David Standridge: “Since being elected to the Legislature, I have been invited to speak at many events including training conferences for varied associations. I have accepted and attended several of these conferences after they were approved by the Alabama Ethics Commission. As legislators, we are expected to speak to groups and giving a legislative update to a training conference is part of our responsibility. We are not paid to speak, but general expenses like our hotel bill are covered.
“Recent media reports are misleading and are not an accurate account of the events. I have never seen any problems. I have never been asked to do anything special by any of these organizations. While attending these conferences, I have learned a lot about the various groups and industries. Being invited to speak can be an indication of how effective a legislator is considered, and I was honored to be one of the representatives invited to speak and attend these events.”