ATLANTA -- The Alabama Ethics Commission has recommended that the state's attorney general investigate possible violations by a group of Mobile, Ala., officials who went to New York City last year to discuss a $51.3 million bond issue.
The trip, made by Mayor Mike Dow and nine other city officials, provoked widespread controversy because it cost the city more than $17,000.
A spokesman for the commission said the decision to involve the attorney general was made in a hearing last Friday. The commission advised that information collected in its six-month inquiry be passed on to Attorney General Jimmy Evans, the spokesman said.
"We have made our decision to pass on the information because there may be a possible violation of the state ethics law, and that is the end of our involvement in the matter," the spokesman said.
The spokesman would not provide details on the alleged violations.
Alabama's Ethics Act, which established the ethics commission, was passed by the Legislature in 1973 to prevent public officials or employees from misusing public office for personal gain. Violators of the act face fines of up to $10,000 and two to 10 years in prison.
Ellen Brooks, Alabama's deputy attorney general, said Wednesday that "a large boxful" of materials on the Mobile investigation was received that afternoon from the ethics commission. Ms. Brooks said the attorney general's office had not yet reviewed the materials. But if they contained information that suggests a violation of the state's ethics act, she added, the attorney general would recommend that a grand jury be convened to consider possible criminal indictments.
Susan Nelson, spokeswoman for Mayor Dow, confirmed that 10 city officials went to New York City to discuss the ratings on the city's then upcoming general obligation warrants deal.
Besides Mayor Dow, the entourage included six of seven city council members, two city finance officials, the city clerk, and the spouses of nine officials, she said. Last October, Mayor Dow said the city paid $17,237 for travel, hotel, and restaurant expenses during a four-day trip.
In a short statement made available by Ms. Nelson, Mayor Dow denied any wrongdoing.
"Frankly I was surprised by the ruling," the mayor said. "However, I intend to cooperate fully with the attorney general's office and state my individual case when requested to do so."
In another statement, city council members denied they had violated any law in making the trip.
"We had no reason to believe that anything we were doing or had done did not comply fully with the letter and spirit of the ethics law," they said. "We intend to cooperate fully with the attorney general so that he may undertake his review expediently."
The council members' statement claimed that ethics commission members' questions at the hearing focused on "the purpose of the trip and the number of people who went.
"These questions were answered to their satisfaction," the statement continued. "Their concern was over the fact that the city, rather than the bond underwriters [who offered to do so], paid for some of the spouses' expenses. Members of the Ethics Commission apparently felt that the way the expenses were handled might be the best way to handle these expenses, but even so may not comply with the ethics law."
In mid-September, shortly after the officials' four-day visit to New York City, the Mobile warrants issue was sold by a Merrill Lynch Capital Markets-led syndicate to provide financing for a new waterfront convention center on the Mobile River. The issue received a triple-A rating from both Standard & Poor's Corp. and Moody's Investors Service on the strength of insurance from AMBAC Indemnity Corp.
Individual council members who wenton the trip -- Jane Baxter, Charles Chapman, Reggie Copeland, Clinton Johnson, and Thomas Sullivan -- did not return phone calls. The other three city officials besides Mayor Dow who were part of the group -- City Finance Director Barbara Malkove, Deputy Finance Director Lee Covey, and City Clerk Richard Smith -- were also unavailable for comment.
Joanne Tutschek, a spoekeswoman for Merrill Lynch & Co., said her firm would not comment on the ethics committee's action