Governor Robert Bentley apologizes after recording surfaces of an “inappropriate” conversation with a top aide
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
MONTGOMERY, Alabama (CFP) — Alabama Governor Robert Bentley is denying explosive allegations from the state’s former top cop that he is having an affair with a female aide who exerts svengali-like influence over the governor.
However, Bentley has apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments to the aide, Rebekah Mason. The apology came after an audio recording surfaced in which the governor expresses “love” to an unidentified party in a telephone conversation and talks about how much he enjoys touching her breasts.
Just who made that recording isn’t clear, but an unidentified member of Bentley’s own family provided it to officials at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency in August 2014, according to Spencer Collier, the former head of ALEA who was fired by Bentley on March 22.
Collier also claims that he was removed by the governor because he refused to mislead the state attorney general’s office about an investigation related to a political ally, a charge Bentley denies.
In the wake of the salacious revelations, the Democratic leader of the state legislature has called on Bentley to resign, and one of governor’s fellow Republicans, State Auditor Jim Ziegler, has filed an ethics complaint alleging that Bentley used state resources to carry on an affair with Mason.
Collier went public with the affair allegations a day after learning on social media that he had been fired. He told reporters that he first confronted the governor about his relationship with Mason in August 2014, after a member of the governor’s security detail accidentally saw an inappropriate text message from Mason on Bentley’s cell phone.
Several days later, Collier said his agency received audio of the governor “participating in an inappropriate sexual conversation,” which was provided by a member of Bentley’s family that he didn’t identify.
Collier said he informed the governor that he would be committing a crime if he used state resources or campaign funds to facilitate the affair. The governor told Collier he would break off the affair but never did, Collier said.
“Less than a month ago, the governor told me that he was still madly in love with Rebekah Mason,” Collier said.
He said Mason exhibited so much influence over Bentley that she was “the de facto governor.” Collier said he had received complaints about Mason from other law enforcement officials, as well as members of Bentley’s cabinet and members of his family.
“(He) is not the same man that I knew and served in the legislature with and considered one of the best friends I ever had, and for that I am saddened,” said Collier, who said he had been a friend and political ally of Bentley for 15 years.
Collier also denied the allegations of mismanagement in his agency that led to his ouster: “I have not mismanaged a dime.”
A short time after Collier spoke, Bentley called his own news conference to flatly deny he was having an affair with Mason, while admitting he had “inappropriate” conversations with her that he described as a “mistake.”
“I am truly sorry, and I accept full responsibility,” he said. “I want everyone to know, though, that I have never had a physical affair with Mrs. Mason.”
“I can assure the people of Alabama that as their governor, I have never done anything illegal,” he said. “At no time have I ever used the resources of my office to facilitate a relationship of any type.”
But when asked if his inappropriate conduct with Mason played a role in his 2015 divorce from his wife of 50 years, Dianne, the 73-year-old governor declined to comment. Asked if he loved Mason, he said, “I love many members of my staff.”
Bentley, a dermatologist, was elected to his second term in 2014. Shortly after his first inauguration in 2011, he made national headlines by telling a church audience that “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.” He later apologized.
Bentley, who is term limited in 2018, said he will not resign over Collier’s allegations. And although he apologized for the conversation captured on audio, the governor said he had not listened to it, although he had known of its existence for nearly two years.
On the audio, a voice that appears to be Bentley’s can be be heard in a telephone conversation with an unknown party, in which he talks about putting his arms around the other party and putting his hands on her breasts.
“I love you. I love to talk to you,” Bentley says.
Later on the tape, he says, “Baby, let me tell you what we’re gonna to have to do tonight–start locking the door. If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re gonna have to start locking the door.”
One question raised by the audio is where it was recorded. Zeigler’s complaint alleges that a reference in the audio about needing to move a secretary’s desk indicates sexual activity was taking place on state property.
After Bentley denied an affair, Mason fired off her own statement in which she accused Collier of sexism for his insinuation that she exerts undue influence over Bentley.
“He only said what he said about my professional abilities because I am a woman. His comments were clear, demonstrated gender bias,” Mason said.
“Unfortunately, there are still some people who are set on hindering the ability of women to work in the political arena. I am proud of what I have accomplished in the political arena. And I’m grateful for the opportunity God has given me to serve our state.”
Mason’s husband, Jon, who also works for the Bentley administration, took to Facebook to defend his “amazing” wife.
“I wanted to share that I long ago resolved the personal issue playing out now for everyone this week,” he said. “Please continue to support families, the governor and our state with prayers as we all move forward.”
Jon Mason did not elaborate on the nature of the personal issue. But he said his wife “is not a fictional character from a TV show or caricature created by assumptions and imagination.”
While Mason is, by Bentley’s own description, one of his top aides, she is not a state employee. Instead, her salary is being paid by the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501 (c)(4) group with ties to Bentley.
Zeigler’s complaint alleges accepting money from an outside group would make Mason a lobbyist, but she has failed to register as such.
“Either Mrs. Mason is a lobbyist, or she is a government official,” Zeigler said.”If she is (a) lobbyist, she has violated the law by failing to register and file reports. If she is a government official, she has violated the law by improperly receiving private funds.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, called on Bentley to step down, saying “it is time for the circus to stop.”
“Public service is about doing what is best for the people of Alabama, and it is clear these countless distractions–whether criminal or ethical–are affecting our legislature and now our governor,” Ford said in a statement.
In his news conference, Collier said his relationship with Bentley began to deteriorate earlier this year when, over the governor’s objections, he complied with a request from Attorney General Luther Strange for an affidavit saying that his agency had cleared a deputy attorney general of allegations of leaking grand jury testimony to a witness.
That deputy, Matt Hart, was the lead investigator in a corruption case that eventually led to a 23-count indictment against Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, an ally of Bentley.
Hubbard has denied the charges, characterizing the investigation as a political attack on him by Strange. Hubbard’s attorneys have raised prosecutorial misconduct as part of their defense.
Collier said Bentley wanted him to say that his agency was continuing with the investigation of Hart’s conduct, when it, in fact, wasn’t. Both the governor and Mason were angered when he wouldn’t go along, Collier said.
“To say she was furious would be an understatement,” Collier said.
“This is not the way government should work. This is not the way law enforcement should work. Elected officials should not be able to yield this much power over a law enforcement investigation. The people of this state deserve better.”
Bentley denied Collier’s accusation, saying, “I have never asked any member of my staff or any cabinet member to lie.”