Alabama House committee scheduled to receive report on Gov. Robert Bentley
Bentley denies abusing his office to facilitate and cover up extramarital affair
The time has come for the Alabama Legislature to decide if it wants Gov. Robert Bentley to remain at the state’s helm.
On Friday, the state’s House Judiciary Committee will receive a report detailing the findings of an impeachment investigation led by the committee’s special counsel, Jack Sharman.
The report, along with impeachment hearings slated to begin Monday, are aimed at resolving the two-term governor’s yearlong saga, which began with allegations of a sex scandal involving his former adviser, Rebekah Mason.
The Alabama Ethics Commission announced Wednesday that it had “found probable cause to believe” Bentley violated campaign finance and ethics laws. The panel had received two complaints alleging that the septuagenarian “Luv Guv” – as he’s been dubbed by local media outlets and bloggers – misused state resources to facilitate his affair.
Bentley has repeatedly denied having an affair with Mason, even after audio recordings surfaced purporting to capture Bentley telling Mason he loved her and enjoyed putting his hands under her shirt.
On one tape, he is heard suggesting, “If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re going to have to start locking the door.”
The governor has acknowledged making inappropriate remarks to a staffer, but nothing more. Mason resigned last year, the same year Dianne Bentley, the governor’s wife of 50 years, saw her divorce made final.
A secret meeting
On Tuesday, a year to the day since articles of impeachment were first brought against the governor, the Alabama Ethics Commission met in secret to discuss Bentley, according to two state officials who asked not to be named.
The meeting agenda said the body planned to “discuss matters relating to the character and reputation of certain public officials or employees as well as matters covered by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act.”
State law expressly forbids officials from meeting in executive session to discuss the job performance of an elected official. It also states, “Job performance does not include the general reputation and character of the person being discussed.”
Asked before the meeting for a guarantee that the commission would not discuss Bentley’s job performance, in contravention of state law, the commission’s executive director, Thomas Albritton, told CNN in an email, “I don’t really understand your question, but what I can tell you is that we will not violate Alabama’s Open Meetings Act.”
Following its meeting, the Ethics Commission announced that a yearlong investigation – involving 45 witnesses and 33,000 documents – indicated there was probable cause to believe Bentley violated the Alabama Ethics Act and Fair Campaign Practices Act.
The commission referred the matter to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. If he’s charged and convicted, Bentley could face decades in prison and fines.
Bentley, through attorney William Athanas, maintained his innocence, with Athanas saying, “There’s a great distance between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.”
On to impeachment
The House committee’s effort to investigate the governor hasn’t been without its own drama. The panel halted its probe in November when then-state Attorney General Luther Strange asked that his office be able to take over “related work.”
But in February, before the attorney general office’s investigation was done, Bentley appointed Strange to the US Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, whom President Donald Trump nominated to become attorney general of the United States.
The move drew accusations of collusion from the state auditor and others.
House leaders last month directed Sharman to get back to work. He sent the governor’s lawyers a letter last week laying out a tentative schedule for impeachment hearings. If the House votes to impeach, it would kick off a trial in the Alabama Senate, which acts as a jury and could remove Bentley from office.
The governor’s attorney, Ross Garber, condemned Sharman’s schedule, claiming Bentley was being denied due process and expressing confidence that the Judiciary Committee “will not allow their proceedings to be hijacked and turned into a kangaroo court.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eager to impeach Bentley, a Republican. Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican who introduced articles of impeachment last year, called it “one of the few truly bipartisan issues.” Montgomery insiders, including Henry and GOP Rep. Corey Harbison, have speculated that Bentley might resign rather than go down as the only Alabama governor to be impeached.
“I would want to resign if that was me,” Harbison said. “I would want to end it.”
But with only days to go before the impeachment hearings, Bentley has stood firm. Here’s the origin of each article of impeachment.
Article I: Willful neglect of duty
The first impeachment article charges Bentley with neglecting his gubernatorial duties and breaking the law in an attempt to “promote his own personal agenda.”
According to Henry, the malfeasance charge stems from allegations made by Alabama Law Enforcement Agency ex-Secretary Spencer Collier, before Bentley fired him.
Formerly the state’s top cop, Collier claims he was terminated for disobeying Bentley’s order that he not cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation of House Speaker Mike Hubbard. (Hubbard was sentenced to prison last year after being found guilty on 12 ethics charges.)
After his dismissal, Collier sat down with reporters and told them he’d seen proof of Bentley’s affair and accused the governor of using state resources to cover it up.
Article II: Corruption in office
This allegation stems from what investigators call “credible evidence” that the governor misused state property to facilitate his relationship with Mason.
In addition, it states that the governor made important “administrative decisions” solely to foster his affair and conceal it — a reference to Collier’s ousting on March 22, 2016.
“He was using his office to basically blackmail and strong-arm individuals into not disclosing any of his extramarital affairs,” Henry said.
Another issue was the lack of transparency surrounding Mason’s compensation. According to AL.com, Mason moved from the governor’s office to Bentley’s reelection campaign in 2013, working through her private consulting firm, RCM Communications. The campaign paid her $426,978, according to the Bentley campaign’s expenditure report.
Because she was no longer on the government payroll, Mason wasn’t subject to financial disclosures. Critics, including Henry, consider the move evidence that Mason and Bentley were trying to circumvent campaign ethics laws.
Article III: Incompetency
This one addresses Bentley’s repeated blunders and his failure to deal with the scandal and its fallout effectively, Henry told CNN.
“He is not capable of running the state with the decisions he is making,” Henry said. “Time and time again he has poor judgment and continues to make these decisions that are detrimental to the people of Alabama.”
Henry points to Bentley’s continued interactions with Mason even after she resigned. Most recently, the pair traveled to Washington D.C. to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration. Mason’s husband, Jon, accompanied them.
“We’re still hearing stories of cabinet members having to have very intense conversations with him about continuing to allow her to travel with him,” Henry said. “It never stops.”
Article IV: Offense of moral turpitude
The term “moral turpitude,” in this case, means that while Bentley’s extramarital affair is not an illegal act by itself, his “inherently immoral” behavior shows he is unfit to be the governor, according to the allegation.
It’s a snub for a governor who in his inauguration speech praised the state’s fresh ethics laws because, in his words, “The people of this state are counting on us to focus on them, not ourselves.”
Bentley’s scandal has hijacked the political apparatus, and all the focus is on him, critics say. Harbison, who didn’t originally support impeachment but has since changed his mind, feels nothing will get done until they address the elephant in the governor’s office.
“We have a lot of important issues we need to be dealing with. I just don’t think we can deal with them if Bentley’s in office because of the trust level of people in Alabama,” he said. “This is kind of like a road block. A lot of people I’ve talked to, they don’t want to see him in prison. … They want to move on from this.”