With Robert Bentley’s resignation as governor, Alabama’s history of top elected officials who have had their careers end because of scandal continues.
In the past 25 years, three governors have faced criminal charges during or soon after their terms of office, and a speaker of the House was forced out after convictions on a dozen ethics violations. The state’s chief justice was removed from office twice – not on criminal charges, but for willfully disobeying federal judges’ orders.
With four top elected officials now convicted criminals, is Alabama leading the nation in political corruption?
There are no hard numbers available to back up such an assertion, but former state legislator Steve Flowers, who now writes a weekly column about Alabama politics that’s carried in scores of newspapers, said our reputation is getting close to that of another Southern state famous for its political shenanigans.
“We always had Louisiana to thank for being more corrupt and debaucherous than we are,” Flowers said. “But I would say that in the past 25 years, and especially in the past two years, that we’ve surpassed Louisiana.”
Bentley’s resignation Monday came during impeachment proceedings accusing him of misuse of state funds and other misconduct in the attempt to conceal an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Mason was one of Bentley’s advisers and wife of Jon Mason, who until Tuesday was the head of Bentley’s Office of Faith-Based and Volunteer Services. He also was being investigated by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office after the Ethics Commission referred cases of possible ethics violations there.
Bentley, a Republican, agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges that he did not report a $50,000 personal loan he made to his campaign and that he converted campaign funds to personal use to pay nearly $9,000 in Rebekah Mason’s legal fees. Bentley will not receive a security detail or retirement benefits from the state; he also agreed to never seek public office again. In return, Bentley was put on probation for one year and will not serve time in jail.
After his resignation, Lt. Gov. Key Ivey was sworn in as governor, the second woman to hold the office in the state’s history.
Bentley is the third governor to be found guilty of criminal charges relating to official duties and the second to prematurely end his term because of such charges.
“The payment to (Rebekah Mason) was probably the ethics charge that caused Bentley the biggest problem,” Flowers said.
In 1993, Gov. Guy Hunt was convicted of transferring campaign and
inaugural funds for personal use, including $200,000 in inaugural money that was used to buy marble showers, among other items. The convictions forced Hunt, a Republican, to resign in accordance with state law. Hunt was ordered to repay the money and fined an additional $12,000, and he was sentenced to five years of probation. When he petitioned the state parole board in 1998 to trim the final four months from that term, a judge instead added an additional five years of probation. But later that year, the parole board pardoned Hunt and restored his voting rights.
Gov. Don Siegelman is the only Alabama governor to serve time in prison for crimes committed while in office. Siegelman, a Democrat who served one term from 1999 to 2003 before being defeated for
re-election by Bob Riley, was convicted in federal court of taking $500,000 to go toward campaign efforts for a constitutional amendment to allow a state lottery. The bribe was from former HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy, who gave him the money in exchange for a seat on a state board that regulates hospitals.
Siegelman, the most recent Democrat to serve as Alabama governor, was convicted three years after leaving office. He was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison, which he began serving in 2012. Siegelman was released in February 2017 on probation.
Professor John L. Carroll, a member of Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law faculty and a former federal magistrate judge, said that the crimes of Bentley and Hunt had more to do with covering up personal actions, while those of Siegelman and House Speaker Mike Hubbard resulted from traditional political corruption.
“Bentley and Hunt are what I would label as ‘accidental governors.’ Hunt should never have been the governor – it should have been either Bill Baxley or Charlie Graddick. But because of the internecine warfare in the Democratic Party, he (Hunt) got elected,” Carroll said. “And nobody expected Bentley to be governor. I don’t believe either Bentley or Hunt came to that office with the sort of background in political state office … that really had them ready to go.”
Stronger Ethics Law
Flowers said that today’s tougher ethics laws have had a lot to do with the fate of Bentley, Siegelman and Hunt. Flowers said that if those laws had been in effect throughout the 20th century, all of the state’s governors would have run afoul of the law – especially legendary figures such as George Wallace and “Big Jim” Folsom.
“One time Wallace was asked by a reporter about giving road contracts to his friends,” Flowers said. “Wallace told him, ‘Who in the hell do you think I should give ‘em to? My enemies?’”
Folsom would admit or even brag to voters that some of his official actions might be a bit on the shady side. “But the people out in the state didn’t care, because he got more farm-to-market roads built that helped them get their crops to market,” Flowers said.
Last June, Hubbard, a Republican, was automatically removed from office after he was convicted on charges of misusing his office for personal gain, as well as seeking monetary gifts from registered lobbyists. All of the
charges were based on recent changes to the state’s ethics laws – changes that Hubbard led the effort to pass in the Legislature.
Hubbard’s crimes led to a series of articles by The New Republic magazine, which quoted reporter Bill Britt of the Alabama Political Reporter website: “Mike Hubbard has been the overlord of an orgy of greed and corruption like we have never seen… . He is the Caligula of Alabama. Just a tyrant, and a mean and perverse guy.”
Hubbard was sentenced to four years in prison plus eight years of probation on 12 charges, and he was fined $210,000. He remains free on bond while appealing the conviction
While Judge Roy Moore’s removal from office was not the result of criminal charges, he is the only known state elected official in Alabama history to be removed from his office, then be elected again for that same office, and then be removed yet again under different charges.
Moore, who parlayed his fame as the judge who refused to remove a display of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom into election to the state’s highest judicial office, was stripped of his position by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for his installation of “Roy’s Rock,” a granite monument bearing numerous historical inscriptions that included, among other things, the Ten Commandments. A federal judge ordered the monument to be removed; Moore defied the order, which led to his dismissal in 2003.
Moore ran again for chief justice and won easily, but he was again tossed out of office in 2016 by the Court of the Judiciary for defying a federal injunction against his prohibition against issuing licenses for same-sex marriages.
Is It a Flaw in the System?
So does a pattern of gubernatorial misconduct, as well as crimes of other state officeholders, indicate that something is wrong with Alabama’s political system? Carroll doesn’t think so.
“I think the circumstances of each of these three governors was so different that I find it hard to say, ‘There’s something wrong with our state, we have a culture of corruption.’ I’m just not convinced that’s true because of the vast differences in the three incidents,” Carroll said.
In some respects, both Carroll and Flowers believe the attempted cover-ups by Bentley and Hunt were worse than the crimes themselves, much like with Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Flowers said that the record of gubernatorial corruption in recent years might make some aspiring younger politicians think twice about running for the state’s highest office – even as a crowded field of candidates prepares to do just that in 2018.
“If you’re a young person and you want to run for governor, the odds are probably 50-50 that you’re going to end up in jail.”