Bentley pleads guilty to misdemeanor charges; Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey sworn in
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Facing likely impeachment and possible felony charges, Robert Bentley resigned as Alabama’s governor April 10 and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors stemming from his efforts to extricate himself from a scandal over his relationship with former aide Rebekah Mason.
Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey was then sworn in as the state’s new chief executive, becoming only the second woman to ever hold Alabama’s highest office.
“This is both a dark day in Alabama, but yet also, it’s one of optimism,” Ivey said after taking the oath of office. “I ask for your help, for your patience, as together we steady the ship of state and improve Alabama’s image.”
Bentley’s resignation capped a remarkable fall from grace for the dermatologist-turned-governor from Tuscaloosa, whose good name, marriage and political future were all swept aside by the salacious story of a septuagenarian Baptist grandfather of seven carrying on with a married mother of three who is nearly three decades his junior.
Bentley, who has denied having an affair with Mason, repeatedly insisted that he had done nothing illegal and wouldn’t resign. But after top Republican leaders abandoned him and the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings that appeared likely to lead to his removal from office, he reached a deal with the state attorney general’s office that spares him from possible felony charges in connection with what has come to be known as the “Luv Guv” scandal.
As he held his last news conference as governor, announcing his departure, Bentley was once again apologetic, although he did not mention that he would soon leave the Capitol to plead guilty to criminal charges.
“Thought I have committed myself to working to improve the lives of the people of our state, there have been times that I have let you and our people down, and I’m sorry for that,” Bentley said. “I can no longer allow my family, my dear friends, my dedicated staff and cabinet, to be subjected to the consequences that my past actions have brought upon them.”
Bentley also said “the time has come for me to look at new ways to serve the people of our great state” outside of political office.
A short time later, Bentley was booked at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, looking straight ahead and smiling slightly in his mugshot.
Bentley pleaded guilty to converting campaign funds for personal use by using $8,912 in political contributions to help pay Mason’s legal fees. He also pleaded guilty to not reporting a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign committee within the period required by law.
Under terms of the deal, Bentley received a 30-day suspended sentence, was put on a year’s probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to reimburse his campaign for Mason’s legal fees, pay a $7,000 fine and forfeit almost $37,000 that remained in his campaign account.
The deal resolves all pending state charges against him, including a referral from the Alabama Ethics Commission, which found probable cause that Bentley broke four felony ethics and campaign finance laws. It also allows Bentley to keep his medical license.
However, a federal grand jury has also been investigating the scandal, and the state plea deal would not affect any possible future federal charges.
Earlier in the day, the House Judiciary Committee had begun impeachment hearings against Bentley, in which committee’s special counsel, Jack Sharman, began outlining how Bentley allegedly misused his office to try to contain the fallout from his relationship with Mason.
In an sensational report released April 7, Sharman alleged that “in a process characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia,” Bentley used law enforcement officers to try to retrieve audio of a salacious conversation with Mason secretly recorded by his former wife, then smeared the state official who publicly disclosed their relationship and tried to obstruct the committee’s investigation.
According to the report, Bentley even tried to use law enforcement officers to break up with Mason on his behalf, although he later changed his mind.
Bentley’s wife, Dianne, later divorced him, ending 50 years of marriage. Mason, who has also denied having an affair with Bentley, remains married. Her husband, Jon, resigned from his job as head of Bentley’s faith-based outreach program the day after Bentley resigned.
Ivey, 72, served eight years as state treasurer before being elected lieutenant governor in 2010. She will serve out the remainder of Bentley’s term, which ends in 2019.
After taking the oath of office, Ivey said that while as lieutenant governor she had been prepared to take over as governor if called upon, she “never desired it and certainly never expected it would come.”
“I pledge to each of you that I will do my very best. The Ivey administration will be open, it will be transparent, and it will be honest,” she said.
Ivey’s ascension to the governorship could potentially shake up the 2018 governor’s race. While Bentley was term-limited and could not run again, Ivey would be eligible to run and, as the incumbent, would have a signficiant advantage in what had been seen as a wide-open race.
Alabama’s only other female governor was Lurleen Wallace, who was elected in 1966 to succeed her husband, George, who was barred from succeeding himself. She died after in 1968, after just 15 months in office.
While no Alabama governor has ever been impeached, the state is no stranger to misdeeds in high places.
In 1993 Republican Governor Guy Hunt was forced to resign after being convicted for looting his inaugural fund to pay personal expenses. Former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman also served five years in prison after being convicted of trading government favors for campaign contributions while he was governor.
In 2016, the former speaker of the Alabama House, Mike Hubbard, was convicted on 12 felony ethics violations for using his office for personal gain and accepting gifts from lobbyists. Bentley was a witness in Hubbard’s trial, although he was not implicated in the case.