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Video: Kay Ivey launches full term as Alabama governor

Inauguration is pinnacle for Republican who has labored 15 years in statewide office

Video from WIAT-TV CBS 42 via Facebook

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.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley resigns over “Luv Guv” scandal

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.

Sign seen at Alabama state line (Courtesy Facebook)

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.

Robert Bentley’s mugshot (From MCSD)

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.

New Alabama Governor Kay Ivey

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.

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.

Impeachment hearings set for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

State House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony starting April 10

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Alabama’s House Judiciary Committee will begin taking testimony on April 10 concerning possible impeachment proceedings against Governor Robert Bentley over his relationship with a female subordinate.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

The schedule for the hearings was disclosed in a letter sent to Bentley’s attorneys by Jack Sharman, the special counsel hired by the committee to investigate allegations that Bentley may have misused state resources to carry on an extramarital affair with aide Rebekah Mason, which both of them have denied.

Sharman said he will issue a report with findings from his investigation on Friday, April 7, and  hearings before the committee will begin the following Monday. However, he said that schedule could slip if Bentley files a lawsuit over the proceedings, which the governor’s attorneys have indicated is possible.

Bentley’s attorneys, Ross Garber and David Byrne, pushed back on the process in a strongly worded letter to Sharman, complaining that his proposal for hearings exceeded the authority granted to him by the committee.

They also complained that Sharman’s proposed timetable would deprive the governor of due process by giving him only three days to prepare a defense after receiving the investigative report.

Sharman said Bentley, who has refused the committee’s request to submit to an interview under oath, would be able to testify in front of the committee. However, if he does, his testimony could be used against him in any future criminal proceedings.

Bentley’s relationship with Mason is already the subject of investigations by the state attorney general’s office, a federal grand jury and the Alabama Ethics Commission. He is also being sued by Spencer Collier, the former head of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, who went public with allegations about Bentley’s affair with Mason after the governor fired him.

In March 2016, an audio recording surfaced in which the governor can be heard expressing “love” to an unidentified party in a telephone conversation and talking about how much he enjoys touching her breasts.

Collier identified Bentley’s paramour as Mason, alleging the two had an ongoing sexual relationship and that he warned the governor that he would be breaking the law if he was used state resources to carry on an affair.

Bentley denied having a sexual relationship with Mason, but he apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments. Mason also denied the affair but resigned from Bentley’s staff shortly after the allegations became public.

Just who made the recording isn’t clear, but, according to Collier, an unidentified member of Bentley’s own family provided it to ALEA officials in August 2014. In 2015, Bentley, 74, and his wife of 50 years, Dianne, divorced. He has declined to say whether his inappropriate conduct played a role.

Collier claimed that he was fired 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 denied.

During her time in the governor’s office, Mason was, by Bentley’s own description, one of his top aides. However, she was not a state employee, and her salary was paid by the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501(c)(4) group with ties to Bentley.

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.

No Alabama governor has ever been impeached, although the Yellowhammer 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.

Jeff Sessions confirmed as U.S. attorney general; Luther Strange picked for Sessions Senate seat

Governor Robert Bentley appoints Strange amid investigation into purported affair

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitcs.com editor

alabama mugMONTGOMERY (CFP) — A day after U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed to be U.S. attorney general on a mostly party-line vote, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange was picked to fill Sessions’s vacant Senate seat.

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

However, Strange’s elevation to the Senate post by Governor Robert Bentley on February 9 is already generating controversy because of the outgoing attorney general’s involvement in an investigation into Bentley’s relationship with a former staffer.

Strange has not confirmed if his office has been investigating Bentley’s conduct with Rebekah Mason, who served as one of the governor’s top aides and to whom he has been linked romantically. However, the attorney general had asked a state House committee considering Bentley’s impeachment to suspend its proceedings while his office conducted “necessary related work.”

By sending Strange to Washington, Bentley will now get to pick his replacement as attorney general.

State law also calls for a temporary appointment to fill a Senate vacancy, followed by a special election. But the law leaves the specific timetable for the special election in hand of the governor, and Bentley decided to hold it during the general election in 2018 to avoid the costs of a special election in 2017.

Strange had already announced that he would run in 2018 for the final two years of Session’s current term.

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Sessions, who had represented Alabama in the Senate for 20 years, was confirmed as attorney general after a contentious debate during which Democrats questioned his commitment to upholding civil rights. In the end, only one Democrat–Joe Manchin of West Virginia–voted for his confirmation.

Three other Southern Democrats–Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia–voted against confirming Sessions.

Strange, 63, is in his second term as attorney general. He is known in Alabama as “Big Luther,” a reference to the new senator’s height of 6-feet 9-inches. He was a basketball standout at Tulane University in the 1970s.

In a statement, Strange said he was “greatly honored and humbled” by his appointment to the Senate.

“I pledge to the people of Alabama to continue the same level of leadership as Jeff Sessions in consistently fighting to protect and advance the conservative values we all care about,” he said.

As attorney general, he developed a reputation for rooting out official corruption, including his office’s successful prosecution of Mike Hubbard, the Republican speaker of the Alabama House who was sentenced to four years in prison.

The extent of his investigation of Bentley remains unclear, although his request to stop impeachment proceedings has been widely interpreted as an indication that such an investigation is underway.

In March 2016, an audio tape 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. Bentley denied having an affair, although he apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments to Mason, who resigned from his staff a short time later.

The controversy escalated when Bentley fired Spencer Collier, the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, who said he warned the governor that using state resources to carry on an affair would violate state law.

Collier claimed Mason exhibited so much influence over Bentley that she was “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 has resisted calls for his resignation, despite an ethics complaint and a federal grand jury investigation into his relationship with Mason.

Bentley. now in his second term, is barred from seeking re-election in 2018.

Grand jury may be investigating Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Probe centers on the governor’s alleged affair with a former aide

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

alabama mugMONTGOMERY, Alabama (CFP) — A special prosecutor has been put in charge of a federal investigation of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, and a grand jury may be looking at whether the governor misused his office to carry on a purported affair with an aide.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

A letter sent to attorneys representing people questioned in the investigation, obtained by AL.com, says that U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has appointed U.S. Attorney John Horn from Atlanta to handle the case, after the federal prosecutor in Montgomery, George Beck, recused himself.

Horn has been U.S. attorney in the Atlanta-based Northern District of Georgia since 2015. He is perhaps best known for successfully prosecuting Eric Robert Rudolph, who was convicted of setting off a bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Although the letter did not state that a grand jury investigation was underway, the subject line of the letter reads, “Re: Grand Jury Investigation.”

A grand jury probe would be the latest in a long series of headaches for Bentley in the wake of allegations he had an affair with Rebekah Mason, a former top aide.

A group of state legislators is pushing for his impeachment, he is facing an ethics investigation, and he is being sued by Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, who went public with the affair allegations a day after Bentley fired him.

Collier claimed 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 denied.

Bentley also denied the affair, but he apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments 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, according to Collier, an unidentified member of Bentley’s own family provided it to ALEA officials in August 2014.

In 2015, Bentley, 73, and his wife of 50 years, Dianne, divorced. He has declined to say whether his inappropriate conduct played a role.

A few days before receiving the audio, Collier said he confronted the governor about his relationship with Mason, after a member of the governor’s security detail accidentally saw an inappropriate text message from Mason on Bentley’s cell phone.

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.

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.

Mason, who has also denied an affair, resigned from Bentley’s staff shortly after the allegations were made public.

Bentley, a dermatologist, was elected to his second term in 2014 and is term limited in 2018.  He is the third Alabama governor in the last two decades to run into legal trouble.

In 1993, Republican Governor Guy Hunt was forced to resigned after he was convicted for looting his inaugural fund to pay personal expenses. Former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman is currently serving a six-year sentence after being convicted of trading government favors for campaign contributions while he was governor.

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