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Will Robert Bentley brouhaha rub off on U.S. Senator Luther Strange?

Strange’s candor about Bentley investigation, timing of special election being questioned

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Now that the sex and cover-up scandal that has transfixed Alabama for nearly a year has claimed the political scalp of ex-Governor Robert Bentley, state political circles are fixating on another question: Will the Bentley imbroglio also ensnare U.S. Senator Luther Strange?

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

Bentley punched Strange’s ticket to Washington in February, tapping him to fill the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was confirmed as U.S. attorney general. The governor also handed Strange another generous gift — he delayed a special election for the Senate vacancy until 2018, even though state law mandates that the governor call an election “forthwith.” That meant that Strange’s supposedly temporary appointment would last nearly two years.

At the time, Strange was Alabama’s attorney general, and the resolution of the case against Bentley–in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and resigned–has raised questions about not only the timing of the special election, but also Strange’s push first to delay Bentley’s impeachment and then downplay an investigation into his conduct. Both men are Republicans.

In November 2016, just before the presidential election, Strange asked leaders of the House Judiciary Committee to suspend their work on possible impeachment charges against Bentley because it might impact “related work” by the attorney general’s office.

But after being appointed by Bentley to the Senate, Strange tried to tamp down speculation that the governor was under investigation, telling reporters, “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor. I think it’s actually somewhat unfair to him and unfair to the process.”

But just days later, Strange’s successor as attorney general, Steve Marshall, confirmed that Bentley was indeed under investigation. And because he, too, had been appointed by Bentley, he recused himself and named a special prosecutor, who negotiated the plea deal that pried the former governor from office.

Strange has insisted that his actions as attorney general regarding the Bentley investigation were above board. However, Bessemer attorney Sam McClure has filed a complaint with the Alabama State Bar Association, asking for Strange to be disbarred for accepting the Senate appointment after delaying the impeachment proceedings, which he said violated legal ethics.

McClure has indicated he will file a similar complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission, which could also investigate Strange.

However, a strong argument against any quid quo pro between Bentley and Strange is the fact that at the time he asked the Judiciary Committee to suspend its process, Donald Trump had not been elected. So Strange had no way of knowing that Sessions would be appointed as attorney general and a Senate vacancy would open.

In another twist, a legislator who pushed for Bentley’s impeachment, State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, now says he met with Bentley shortly after Strange’s appointment, and the then-governor told Henry that he sent Strange to the Senate not to impede the investigation into his own conduct but because Bentley thought Strange was corrupt and wanted to get him out of the state.

Henry has now told this story in both national and state media outlets, prompting strong denials from Bentley’s attorney. Two other state legislators have now gone on the record saying that Henry told them the details of what Bentley said in that meeting, although they were not privy to the conversation.

Also up in the air is the possibility that Strange might have to face a special election to hang on to his seat. Saying Bentley’s appointment of Strange “smells to high heaven,” Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler, has gone to court to overturn Bentley’s decision to delay the special election until 2018.

New Governor Kay Ivey, also a Republican, might also reverse course and order an earlier vote, although she has so far given no indication that she’s considering doing so.

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