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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, Chickenfriedpolitics.com 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.

Impeachment hearings begin for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, as resignation reports swirl

Alabama media reporting Bentley is negotiating a deal to resign, plead to lesser charges in “Luv Guv” scandal

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Alabama’s House Judiciary Committee has opened hearings on whether Governor Robert Bentley should be impeached over his alleged efforts to cover up evidence of a relationship with a former female aide, a scandal which is already the focus of several criminal probes.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Even as the hearings opened April 10, AL.com, a website for three large Alabama newspapers, was reporting that Bentley’s resignation may come before the end of the week.

Citing unnamed sources, the website reported that Bentley, 74, who is facing possible felony charges stemming from the so-called “Luv Guv” scandal, was negotiating a deal to plead guilty to lesser charges and let Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey take over as the state’s chief executive.

Bentley’s office denied that any negotiations were taking place, according to AL.com.

The report came just days after Bentley, in an extraordinary appearance before reporters, vowed that he would not resign, asked the people of Alabama to pray for him and cast aspersions on the motives of his accusers.

“Those who are taking pleasure in humiliating and shaming me, shaming my family, shaming my friends–I don’t really understand why they want to do that. It may be out of vengeance, it may be out of anger, maybe out of personal political benefit. I don’t know,” he said.

“I actually forgive those who have hurt me, and I’m asking them to forgive me as well.”

Bentley’s resignation would cap a remarkable fall from grace for the dermatologist-turned-governor from Tuscaloosa, whose good name and political future have been 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’s has denied having a sexual relationship with Rebekah Mason, but he apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments to her, which were surreptitiously recorded by his former wife and later made public. Mason also denied the affair but resigned from Bentley’s staff shortly after the allegations became public.

Attorneys for Bentley tried to stop the Judiciary Committee from beginning its impeachment hearings, arguing that the governor had not been given enough time to prepare a defense. While a judge in Montgomery agreed and issued a restraining order, the Alabama Supreme Court later overturned that ruling and allowed the hearings to proceed.

The committee’s first witness was Jack Sharman, the outside counsel it hired to investigate Bentley’s conduct.

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.

If the Judiciary Committee approves articles of impeachment, the matter would go to the full House. If the House votes to impeach Bentley, he would be temporarily suspended from office pending trial in the Senate, and a conviction in the Senate would result in his removal from office.

No Alabama governor has ever been impeached and removed from office, although in 1993 Republican Guy Hunt was forced to resign after being convicted on felony theft charges for looting his inaugural fund to pay personal expenses.

With possible impeachment looming, Bentley has been under increasing pressure to resign, including from fellow Republicans. The list includes House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, State Auditor Jim Zeigler, and Terry Lathan, chair of the Alabama Republican Party.

The Alabama Ethics Commission has also found probable cause that Bentley broke ethics and campaign finance laws by misusing state resources and using campaign funds to pay Mason’s legal fees. That finding, which has been referred to local prosecutors in Montgomery, could result in felony charges.

Bentley’s relationship with Mason is also being investigated by the state attorney general’s office and a federal grand jury.

Sharman’s report alleged that:

  • Bentley used law enforcement officers to try to track down copies of an audio recording made in 2014 by his former wife, who caught him “speaking provocatively” to Mason, including trying to recover a copy from one of his sons. In that audio, Bentley expresses “love” to the person at the other end of the line and talks about how much he enjoys touching her breasts. In 2015, Bentley and his wife of 50 years, Dianne, divorced.
  • Bentley asked law enforcement officers to “end his relationship with Mason on his behalf” but later changed his mind.
  • Bentley smeared Spencer Collier, the former head of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, with baseless accusations in order to discredit him. In March 2016, Bentley fired Collier for misusing state funds, citing findings of an internal report. But Collier was later cleared of any wrongdoing, and Sharman concluded that the report’s findings were disclosed to “further demonize” Collier, who knew about the governor’s relationship with Mason and publicly disclosed it shortly after he was fired. He is now suing Bentley.
  • Bentley tried to impede Sharman’s investigation by refusing to cooperate and not complying fully with a subpoena for documents. Sharman said the committee “may consider the Governor’s non-cooperation as an independent ground for impeachment.”
  • Mason “enjoyed a favored spot among (Bentley’s) staff, exercising extraordinary policy authority while receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Governor Bentley’s campaign account and from an apparently lawful but shadowy non-profit,” according to the report. The non-profit was the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501(c)(4) group set up to support Bentley’s political agenda, which paid Mason’s salary while she worked on his staff.
  • According to the report, the governor “made little effort” to hide his “inappropriate relationship” with Mason from his inner circle.

During her time in the governor’s office, Mason was, by Bentley’s own description, one of his top aides. Collier said Mason exhibited a svengali-like influence over Bentley that made her the “de facto governor.” He 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.

Bentley, elected in 2010, is serving his second term. He is term-limited from seeking re-election in 2018.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley defiant as damning report on “Luv Guv” scandal is released

Report charges Bentley used law enforcement officers to hide evidence of affair, obstructed probe

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Alabama Governor Robert Bentley is defiantly insisting he won’t resign, despite release of a politically damaging report detailing alleged efforts to cover up evidence of his relationship with a former female aide.

The report, prepared for the House Judiciary Committee, alleged that Bentley used law enforcement officers to retrieve audio of a salacious conversation with Rebekah Mason that had been recorded by his former wife, smeared the state official who disclosed their relationship and tried to obstruct the committee’s investigation into what has become known as the “Luv Guv” scandal.

He even tried to use law enforcement officers to break up with Mason on his behalf, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the legislature’s two top Republicans–House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston–are both calling on fellow Republican Bentley to step aside.

Resignation is “the only way to avoid taking our state on a long, painful and embarrassing journey whose ending is already likely known to us all,” McCutcheon said.

The Judiciary Committee had been scheduled to begin hearings on possible articles of impeachment against Bentley on April 10. However, Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Greg Griffin issued a temporary restraining order blocking the committee from beginning impeachment hearings until a hearing on May 15, just a week before the legislature is set to adjourn.

Bentley’s attorneys also tried unsuccessfully to block release of the Judiciary Committee report.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

As his lawyers fought in court, the governor took to the steps of the Capitol for an extraordinary six-minute appearance before reporters in which he denied doing anything illegal, asked the people of Alabama to pray for him and cast aspersions on the motives of his accusers.

“Those who are taking pleasure in humiliating and shaming me, shaming my family, shaming my friends–I don’t really understand why they want to do that. It may be out of vengeance, it may be out of anger, maybe out of personal political benefit. I don’t know,” he said.

“I actually forgive those who have hurt me, and I’m asking them to forgive me as well.”

He also insisted that the focus on the scandal was a distraction from his work on behalf of the people of Alabama.

“The people of this state have never asked to be told of, or shown, the intimate and embarrassing details of my personal life and my personal struggles,” he said. “Exposing embarrassing details of my past personal life … will not create one single job, will not pass one budget. It will not help one child get a good education, and it will not help any child get good health care.”

Addressing the people of Alabama, Bentley said “there’s no doubt that I have let you down. And all I ask is that you continue to pray for me, and I will continue to pray for you.”

He also said that “with the strength God gives me every day, and the blessed assurance I have in my salvation through Jesus Christ, I have worked hard to move beyond my past mistakes.”

In the midst of the scandal, the governor also said “I asked God to take these struggles and to help me carry these burdens. And I found freedom in that. And I completely gave Him all of me.”

The Judiciary Committee’s investigative report, prepared by outside counsel Jack Sharman, alleged that:

  • Bentley used law enforcement officers to try to track down copies of an audio recording made in 2014 by his former wife, who caught him “speaking provocatively” to Mason, including trying to recover a copy from one of his sons. In that audio, which surfaced in March 2016, the septuagenarian governor can be heard expressing “love” to an unidentified party in a telephone conversation and talking about how much he enjoys touching her breasts. In 2015, Bentley and his wife of 50 years, Dianne, divorced.
  • Bentley asked law enforcement officers to “end his relationship with Mason on his behalf.”
  • Bentley smeared Spencer Collier, the former head of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, with baseless accusations in order to discredit him. In March 2016, Bentley fired Collier for misusing state funds, citing findings of an internal report. But Collier was later cleared of any wrongdoing, and Sharman concluded that the report’s findings were disclosed to “further demonize” Collier, who knew about the governor’s relationship with Mason and publicly disclosed it shortly after he was fired.
  • Bentley tried to impede Sharman’s investigation by refusing to cooperate and not complying fully with a subpoena for documents. Sharman said the committee “may consider the Governor’s non-cooperation as an independent ground for impeachment.”
  • Mason “enjoyed a favored spot among (Bentley’s) staff, exercising extraordinary policy authority while receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Governor Bentley’s campaign account and from an apparently lawful but shadowy non-profit,” according to the report. The non-profit was the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501(c)(4) group set up to support Bentley’s political agenda, which paid Mason’s salary while she worked on his staff.
  • According to the report, the governor “made little effort” to hide his “inappropriate relationship” with Mason from his inner circle.
  • The report also noted the Alabama Ethics Commission’s April 4 finding of probable cause that Bentley broke ethics and campaign finance laws by misusing state resources and using campaign funds to pay Mason’s legal fees. That finding has been referred to local prosecutors in Montgomery.

Bentley has denied having a sexual relationship with Mason, but he apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments. Mason, who is married, also denied the affair but resigned from Bentley’s staff shortly after the allegations became public. Mason did not cooperate with Sharman’s investigation, according to his report.

In addition to possible impeachment proceedings and an investigation by the Ethics Commission, Bentley’s relationship with Mason is also being investigated by the state attorney general’s office and a federal grand jury. Collier is also suing him.

During her time in the governor’s office, Mason was, by Bentley’s own description, one of his top aides. Collier said Mason exhibited a svengali-like influence over Bentley that made her the “de facto governor.” He 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.

If the Judiciary Committee approves articles of impeachment, the matter would go to the full House. If the House votes to impeach Bentley, he would be temporarily suspended from office pending trial in the Senate, and a conviction in the Senate would result in his removal from office. He would be succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey.

No Alabama governor has ever been impeached, although the state is no stranger to gubernatorial misdeeds.

In 1993 Republican Governor Guy Hunt resigned under pressure after he was 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.

Bentley, elected in 2010, is serving his second term. He is term-limited from seeking re-election in 2018.

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