(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) With Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley earning international headlines by resigning Monday in the wake of a scandal involving sex, misreporting of campaign finances, and multiple allegations of misuse of state resources along with illegal intimidation tactics, all three branches of Alabama government have seen top officials evicted in the past year.
All three officials were Republicans, leaving the party’s officeholders in bad odor at a time, ironically, when the state party itself at the organizational and elective levels is seeing such record success that the entire, 22-member state Steering Committee was re-elected in March.
Bentley becomes the second Alabama Republican governor in a quarter-century to resign due to ethics violations, following Guy Hunt in 1993. More recently, former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman was released in February from six years in a federal penitentiary for a bribery conviction after he lost a re-election bid in 2002.
The other officials ousted in the past year were state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and House Speaker Mike Hubbard. Moore was suspended last September, on the grounds that he violated state ethics guidelines by issuing a directive to state probate judges to ignore federal court orders to award same-sex marriage licenses. (Moore had been evicted from the same post 13 years earlier after directly defying federal court orders to remove a 5,280-pound monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse – but then was elected again in 2012.) Three weeks ago, Moore won the right to an expedited appeal of his suspension.
Hubbard, meanwhile, was convicted last June on ethics charges for co-mingling his business affairs with his lawmaking actions.
But neither of those scandals was as salacious or multi-faceted as Bentley’s.
Just a week after the governor and his wife Dianne celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2015, she filed for divorce amid rumors of an affair between her husband and top aide Rebekah Mason. A year later, Bentley fired Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier, who immediately said the firing came about because he (Collier) refused to cover up the rumored affair.
Collier’s allegation opened the door to a host of claims, from various sources, that Bentley repeatedly misused the state police and other aides to hide the affair, sometimes at outrageous lengths. The very day after Collier was fired, sources provided the media with audiotapes of recordings Mrs. Bentley made on her cell phone, catching her husband on another phone having a sexually semi-explicit conversation with Mason that included the governor saying how much he enjoyed holding Mason’s breasts.
From there the story took far too many strange twists and turns to recount here, but one stands out. With the state House of Representatives having opened an investigation as part of a potential impeachment process, state attorney general Luther Strange – also a Republican – suddenly asked legislators to suspend their inquiry in November because it might interfere with an investigation his own office was conducting. The lawmakers complied. Later, when U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions was nominated by President Trump to be U.S. Attorney General, Strange said (strangely) that his unspecified probe might not involve Bentley at all.
Strange did not explain how a House impeachment inquiry concerning the governor could have interfered with an AG’s investigation if the latter proceedings had nothing to do with the governor.
With one probe suspended and the other murky at best, Gov. Bentley then appointed Strange to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sessions. On April 6, seven Alabamans officially asked for an ethics probe into that appointment, suggesting an illicit deal between Bentley and Strange.
On that same day, the state Ethics Commission referred four charges against Bentley to state prosecutors – three of them technical campaign-finance violations, and one a vaguer, but more ominous, charge that Bentley did indeed misuse state monies.
The next day – last Friday – the legislature’s counsel, operating on a second track that had finally re-opened once Strange left the AG’s office, released a 100-plus-page report outlining those charges in explicit detail. The counsel amassed copious evidence indicating that the governor did indeed, personally and directly, order numerous aides and state police to go to great (and sometimes expensive) lengths to cover up his illicit relationship with Mason.
One allegation given credence in that report: At a certain time roughly concurrent to when Bentley was personally berating Mrs. Bentley’s chief aide, Heather Hannah, for helping lead his wife to suspect an affair, Ms. Hannah’s home and car were vandalized with messages calling her a “bitch” and saying “you will f***ing die.”
The counsel’s report spurred the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Alabama Party executive committee all to demand Bentley’s resignation. On Monday, Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to his campaign finance practices, agreed to pay a fine and give up his claim to as much as a million dollars in future state pension payments – and resigned from office.
Bentley was succeeded by another Republican, former Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Merrill – also a Republican – suggested that Ivey can re-issue Bentley’s proclamation for an election to fill the remainder of Sessions’ Senate term. This would force Strange to defend his appointed seat this year instead of waiting until November of 2018 as Bentley had originally arranged.
Some two dozen people have been identified as possible contenders either for that seat or for the governorship in 2018, with several of the potential candidates known to be torn between running for governor or for U.S. Senate.
Polls show that the early front-runner for either seat would be suspended Chief Justice Moore.