Thou Shalt Not...
Ethics Panel Finds Judge in Violation

The Associated Press
M O N T G O M E R Y, Ala., June 3

A state ethics panel said that Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore apparently violated ethics laws in connection with a fund created to help finance a legal battle over his courtroom religious activities.

The Ethics Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to send the case to Attorney General Bill Pryor for further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.

Moore said he had no improper dealings with the fund, created during a highly publicized controversy over his courtroom prayers and Ten Commandments display.

Abuses of Power?

Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner said the commission believes Moore spent the money on more than his legal expenses and used the "mantle of his office" to help raise the funds. Sumner would not elaborate.

He said the commission has made it clear to public officials that it would be improper for them to raise money for a defense fund or know who contributed to the fund, because they could show favoritism and people might feel obligated to donate.

Moore could face up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of a felony ethics violation. But Pryor's office is not required to take any action on the matter. Spokeswoman Joy Patterson said Wednesday that Pryor had not received the case and had no comment.

A "Travesty"

Moore called the Ethics Commission ruling a "travesty." He said he had no part in handling or creating the fund and didn’t receive any personal benefit. He said the money was used to pay the expenses of lawyers across the country who volunteered to represent him in lawsuits.

"It's an attempt to stop the message about God," Moore said after the ruling. "It's no great surprise."

Sumner said Moore's personal views had nothing to do with the commission's decision. "The message or the cause is irrelevant to this commission," he said.

The Ethics Commission opens its monthly sessions in prayer and meets in the Public Service Commission's chambers, where a Ten Commandments plaque is displayed.

Dothan businessman John Watson, who voted against Moore, was appointed to the Ethics Commission by former Gov. Fob James. James was a staunch defender of Moore, creating a stir by threatening to use the National Guard to keep the Ten Commandments plaque hanging in Moore's courtroom.

The American Civil Liberties Union first challenged Moore's courtroom practices in a 1995 lawsuit.

That suit was dismissed, but the controversy was fanned by a lawsuit filed by state officials who supported Moore. The new lawsuit sought to have Moore's practices declared legal.

Instead, a Montgomery County judge ordered Moore to remove the Ten Commandments plaque or at least alter its display. The Alabama Supreme Court later dismissed the case on technical grounds without resolving the issue.

Minor Celebrity Figure

Moore was honored for his stand in rallies and featured at speaking engagements across the country. At some of the appearances, contributions to his defense fund were taken.

Supporters also sold replicas of the Ten Commandments to raise money for Moore.

Moore's lawyer, Stephen Melchior of Wyoming, said the defense fund had collected more than $100,000 by 1997. He did not provide updated figures Wednesday when contacted by The Birmingham News, but he said the fund hasn't raised enough to cover all of his expenses in representing Moore.

The donations and travel expenses were cited in an ethics complaint filed in 1997 by a man identified only as J. Lewis in copies distributed anonymously to news media.

Lewis was not at Wednesday's commission meeting. But Moore and Melchior spent more than an hour behind closed doors with the commission. Melchior said the Ethics Commission never fully explained the accusations against Moore and had no reason to continue the probe.

"Judge Moore is an honest man," Melchior said. "This is clearly a situation where ... they couldn’t kill the message, now they're after the messenger."

Pryor has in the past strongly defended Moore's courtroom religious practices.

"I think Bill Pryor is a fair man, and he will smoke out the truth," Melchior said.

Moore said he won't change his courtroom practices because of the ethics ruling.

"We’re not discouraged," he said. "What we've done is clearly within the law."


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