Alabama governor halts impeachment, not disparaging report
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley won a court fight Friday to halt his looming impeachment hearings, but couldn’t prevent the release of an investigative report that describes his paranoia and obsession over trying to keep his romance with a staffer from becoming public.
The stunning events capped a wild week in Alabama politics. Lawyers for the governor rushed to court and appeared before two judges to stop the impeachment proceedings, which were set to begin Monday. Shortly before the lawyers argued, Bentley defiantly stood on the steps of the state Capitol and refused growing calls from fellow Republicans that he step down. Earlier this week, Bentley learned he could face criminal prosecution when the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that he broke ethics and campaign law.
Bentley, 74, has been engulfed in scandal since recordings surfaced in 2016 of him making suggestive remarks to a female aide before he and his wife of 50 years got divorced. The mild-mannered dermatologist and former Baptist deacon has acknowledged making personal mistakes but maintained he did nothing illegal or to merit his removal from office.
The legislative impeachment report suggested otherwise, saying he “encouraged an atmosphere of intimidation” to keep his romantic relationship secret.
“Gov. Bentley directed law enforcement to advance his personal interests and, in a process characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia, subjected career law enforcement officers to tasks intended to protect his reputation,” the report said.
House Judiciary Committee special counsel Jack Sharman wrote that Bentley’s relationship with Rebekah Caldwell Mason was well-known within his inner circle. Bentley’s loyalties shifted from the state to himself as he tried to keep the relationship quiet, Sharman wrote.
Bentley obstructed the legislative investigation by refusing to cooperate and redacting text messages and other material requested by the committee, the report said. Bentley also directed law enforcement staffers to try to uncover who had recorded conversations of him and Mason, Sharman wrote.
After the judge temporarily halted the impeachment proceedings, Sharman said he would appeal.
State lawmakers on Friday night filed a notice of emergency appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court — capping a long day of escalating hostilities between the Republican governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.
Bentley said he has been humiliated and apologized for his mistakes. But, he said, he has done nothing illegal.
“If the people want to know if I misused state resources, the answer is simply no. I have not,” Bentley said in a statement on marble steps of the Capitol. He did not take questions.
Bentley tried to block the report’s release, but it was posted online Friday afternoon.
The report included thousands of pages of exhibits, including text messages of Mason and Bentley exchanging declarations of love and affection. “I sure miss you. I need you. I want you. You are the only one,” Bentley wrote. In one text, the governor’s then wife, Dianne Bentley, appears to deliver an ultimatum about the relationship. “Have u made your choice? Do you still have a relationship going?” she wrote.
However, it is the alleged use of state resources — and not an extramarital relationship — that is expected to pique lawmakers’ interest.
Bentley twice asked his former security officer Ray Lewis to end his relationship with Mason and instructed the state employee to drive to Tuscaloosa to pressure his son to turn over a copy of a recorded conversation between him and Mason, according to the report.
The controversy erupted last year when the former head of state law enforcement, Spencer Collier, a day after being fired by Bentley, publicly accused Bentley of having an affair with his longtime political adviser, Mason. Collier said Mason wielded so much power that she was considered the “de facto governor.”
Bentley’s lawsuit calls the impeachment process “fundamentally unfair.” Bentley’s legal adviser David Byrne has said the rapidly moving process hasn’t given the governor time to respond. He also said the impeachment articles accusing Bentley of corruption and neglect of duty are “extremely vague.”
The special counsel to the Judiciary Committee, Sharman, has said the committee hadn’t violated any due process rights.
Earlier this week, the state Ethics Commission found probable cause that the Republican governor broke state ethics and campaign finance laws. The commission referred the case to a prosecutor, who will decide whether to seek criminal charges.
Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature, have both called on the governor to step aside.
“It’s the only way to avoid taking the state on a long, painful and embarrassing journey whose ending is likely already known to us all,” McCutcheon said Friday.
Ross Garber, the lawyer representing Bentley in the impeachment investigation, has urged lawmakers to be cautious. Garber said that since 1929 only two U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment and both were under criminal indictment.
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.