Alabama governor resigns under threat of impeachment over affair with an aide

Beleaguered Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned Monday after pleading guilty to two campaign violation misdemeanors amid allegations that he misused public resources to pursue an affair with a former aide and intimidated officials in an attempt to cover it up.

"I have decided it is time for me to step down as Alabama's governor," Bentley, a Republican who faced mounting criticism from his own party, said at the state Capitol shortly after he was booked into the Montgomery County Jail and released.

The 74-year-old Southern Baptist and father of four — dubbed the “Luv Gov” by certain sections of the Alabama media — was charged with failing to file a campaign finance report and failing to disclose information on a statement of economic interest. His resignation came as the Alabama House Judiciary Committee wrapped up its first day of impeachment hearings against him.

Shortly afterward, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, a former state treasurer, was sworn in as Alabama's 54th governor. Her administration, she vowed, “will be open, transparent, and it will be honest.”

As part of a plea deal, Bentley agreed to perform 100 hours of community service and repay his campaign fund $8,912. In turn, the state attorney general's office will not pursue felonies against him.

Bentley did not mention the plea deal in his public statement. But he did apologize.

"I've always believed the honor of serving as your governor was a calling that God placed on my life,” Bentley said. “Though 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.”

Earlier Monday, in the first impeachment case considered by Alabama lawmakers in more than a century, Bentley was likened to President Nixon and accused of using government resources for his own purposes and stonewalling investigators.

Until as recently as Friday, Bentley had vowed to stay in office. “Once again, let me say: I do not plan to resign,” Bentley said on the steps of the Capitol building Friday afternoon, just hours before a damning Judiciary Committee report became public.

The move toward impeachment hearings began more than a year ago, when more than 20 members of the Alabama House of Representatives introduced a bill proposing to impeach Bentley for “willful neglect of duty” and “corruption in office.”

Lawmakers who brought impeachment proceedings against Bentley greeted the news of his resignation with relief.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican who initiated the move to impeach the governor, told Montgomery’s WSFA 12 News. “I’m glad to see that he did the right thing. I wish he had done it sooner — for his sake and for the state’s, instead of dragging us down this road.”

Speculation about the governor has simmered since August 2015, when Bentley's wife of 50 years, Dianne, abruptly filed for divorce, stating in court records that their marriage has suffered an “irretrievable breakdown."

Public allegations of an affair between Bentley and former senior political advisor Rebekah Caldwell Mason did not break out until March 2016, when Bentley fired the state's top law enforcement official, Spencer Collier, saying that an internal investigation at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency uncovered possible wrongdoing. Within hours, Collier spoke out against the governor, alleging that he had seen and investigated sexual text messages and audio recordings between Bentley and Mason.

“When I stand behind you, and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts … and just pull you real close,” Bentley said in one audio recording. “I love that too.”

“If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re going to have to start locking the door,” he was also heard saying.

In another recorded conversation, Bentley expressed irritation that his official duties prevented him from spending time with Mason, complaining that his upcoming calendar included time devoted to his legal staff and a discussion of bills he needed to sign.

Although Bentley has acknowledged an improper relationship with Mason, he has insisted it was not physical.

“Impeachment is the people’s check against political excess,” Jack Sharman, special counsel for the Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers on the panel Monday before outlining evidence against Bentley.

According to the 131-page report released Friday, Bentley made little effort to hide his relationship with Mason. At one point, he mistakenly sent a text message saying, “I love you Rebekah,” to his then-wife.

After Dianne Bentley secretly recorded her husband speaking to Mason, the report says, Robert Bentley became engulfed in “increasing obsession and paranoia” and his “loyalty shifted from the state of Alabama to himself.”

Fearful that the recordings could become public, he directed law enforcement officers to “perform tasks that had no law enforcement justification,” the report says, including ordering them at one point to end his relationship with Mason on his behalf, and to investigate who had a copy of the recordings and identify potential crimes with which they could be charged.

“To ensure the silence of his staff, Governor Bentley encouraged an atmosphere of intimidation,” the report says.

Sharman also alleged that Bentley ordered Mason, who at the time was not a state employee, accompany him on official state planes and helicopters — over the objections of security personnel.

Although Bentley has insisted he cooperated with the investigation, providing more than 12,000 documents, Sharman noted that Bentley produced no documents in response to 20 subpoena requests.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of these documents were non-responsive and self-serving,” the report says. “Governor Bentley’s modest responsive production, coupled with his broad objections, only underscored his intention to obstruct and impede the investigation by every means possible.”

During the inquiry, Sharman told lawmakers, the fact that Bentley and his office failed to “meaningfully cooperate” could constitute independent grounds for impeachment.

There are some significant questions regarding Gov. Bentley’s candor towards the investigative efforts,” Sharman said, noting that Bentley declined to provide a full series of notes, emails and text messages and tried to use litigation tactics to delay and frustrate the committee’s attempts to get the facts.

Last week, Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, both Republicans, urged Bentley to resign. On Sunday, the Alabama Republican Party Steering Committee stepped up the pressure, passing a resolution calling for him to immediately step down from office.

“The overwhelming majority of elected officials are good, hard-working people who love their communities, state and nation,” the resolution said. “However, when situations arise that are in direct conflict with the betterment of our people, we will speak up regardless of political party.”

On Monday, the Montgomery County district attorney, Daryl Bailey, turned over a separate Alabama Ethics Commission case against Bentley to the state’s acting attorney general. Last week, the commission found probable cause to ask Bailey’s office to consider prosecuting Bentley on three charges that he violated state campaign finance laws and one charge that he violated ethics law by using public resources to further his personal interests.

This committee today is a theater being watched by the people of Alabama and the nation,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones said Monday morning as he kicked off proceedings. “I trust we will all approach this with a fair and open mind.”

Bentley’s attorneys have contended that the governor had not been given enough time to prepare a defense, an argument that prompted a Montgomery County circuit judge on Friday to temporarily block the Judiciary Committee from beginning impeachment hearings. On Saturday, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned that order in a 7-0 vote, paving the way for the special counsel for the Judiciary Committee to outline the findings of his report.

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

 


UPDATES:

4:30 p.m.: The article was updated with the swearing in of a new governor.

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with news of the governor’s resignation.

This story was originally published at 2 p.m.

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