Panel finds "probable cause"; governor could face prosecution
Bentley has repeatedly said he won't resign and denied a physical affair with aide
A state commission on Wednesday found that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley may have violated state ethics and campaign finance laws.
The Alabama Ethics Commission had previously received two complaints alleging that the “Luv Guv” – as he’s been dubbed by local media outlets and bloggers – misused state resources to facilitate his affair.
Audio recordings from 2014 purportedly revealed that Bentley engaged in sexually explicit conversations with one of his former aides, Rebekah Mason, leading lawmakers to explore impeachment last year.
The commission said it “found probable cause to believe” Bentley violated the Alabama Ethics Act and Fair Campaign Practices Act – which is the state’s campaign finance law – after a yearlong investigation. The commission referred the matter to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
The ethics violation complaint involves using state resources, including but not limited to subordinate personnel, equipment and time to further his personal interests.
The campaign finance violations complaints accuse Bentley of using campaign funds to improperly pay Mason’s legal fees, of improperly receiving campaign contributions outside a 120-day window allowed by law and of making a loan to his campaign account outside the 120-day legal window.
Officials interviewed more than 45 witnesses and analyzed 33,000 documents during the investigation.
Intentional violations of the two acts are Class B felonies, which is punishable by a prison sentence of between two and 20 years for each violation. A fine of up to $20,000 could also be levied for each violation.
Bentley said Thursday he had no intention of stepping down after calls by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to do so, CNN affiliate WSFA reported.
“I have no intentions of resigning,” Bentley said, “and I am looking forward to continuing to work on important issues facing the state,” the station reported.
In addressing one of the charges, Bentley’s legal director David Byrne argued federal case law allowed Bentley to pay Mason’s legal fees.
On Wednesday, Bentley’s attorney William “Bill” C. Athanas reiterated that the second-term governor maintains his innocence. Bentley has repeatedly said he won’t resign.
Athanas said they disagreed with the findings.
“It’s important to keep in mind, this is simply a finding of probable cause. It’s not a finding of a violation,” Athanas said.
Athanas said they don’t believe there was a basis to find that Bentley “violated any law, much less the Ethics Act or the Fair Campaign Practices Act, and so the battle goes on.”
He added: “There’s a great distance between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Bentley and Mason have denied having a physical affair. The governor and his wife divorced in 2016.
Mason, who is married, also resigned last year.
“My only plans are to focus my full attention on my precious children and my husband who I love dearly,” she said in a statement issued by Bentley’s office at the time. “They are the most important people in my life. Thank you for your prayers for our family.”
The relationship came to light when Bentley’s wife of 50 years filed for divorce in September 2015.
The tapes were made public by the Bentley family, according to AL.com, which published excerpts. AL.com reported that it was allowed to hear portions of the tapes by people close to the governor’s family.
They were recorded by family members as they tried to figure out whether the governor was having an affair.
On one tape, Bentley could be heard saying: “When I stand behind you, and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands [unintelligible] and just pull you real close. I love that, too.”
On Friday, the state’s House Judiciary Committee will receive a report on the findings of an impeachment investigation led by the committee’s special counsel, Jack Sharman. Impeachment proceedings are scheduled to start Monday.
Ross Garber, another attorney for Bentley, said Wednesday’s findings are “not something that will or should generally trigger an impeachment; it historically hasn’t.”
CNN’s Devon Sayers, Dakin Andone and Eliott C.McLaughlin contributed to this report.