Alabama started Monday morning facing a week of impeachment hearings expected to center on sordid details of the governor’s relationship with an aide and his use of law enforcement to cover it up.
But by the end of the day, the state had a new chief executive who pledged to “steady the ship of state,” and former Gov. Robert Bentley had fingerprints and a mug shot on file at the Montgomery County jail.
Bentley resigned Monday afternoon and took a deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges stemming from information the state Ethics Commission handed over to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office last week.
Bentley was sentenced to a 30-day suspended jail sentence and 12 months of probation. He was ordered to surrender almost $37,000 in campaign funds and serve 100 hours of community service, which the 74-year-old dermatologist will fulfill by performing dermatological work in rural Alabama.
Under the plea agreement, Bentley may not run for public office in the future and will forfeit his retirement benefits from the state.
Bentley pleaded guilty to failing to file a major campaign finance report, stemming from his failure to declare on time a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign. He also pleaded guilty to converting campaign funds for personal use, which involves $9,000 he used from his campaign account to pay legal fees for Rebekah Mason, the former aide with whom Bentley had what he called an inappropriate relationship.
In his resignation speech, Bentley conceded he had let the people down at times.
“The time has come for me to look for new ways to serve the great people of our state,” he said.
Bentley vowed to provide Ivey’s administration with any assistance needed for a smooth transition.
“Thank you, goodbye, and I love this state from the bottom of my heart,” Bentley concluded.
Ivey in her speech after being sworn in also said she expected a smooth transition. She won a round of applause from the crowd packed in the Senate Chambers of the old capitol building when she said, “The Ivey administration will be open, it will be transparent and it will be honest.”
Wife’s Suspicions Spark Political Downfall
The transition caps about two years of public controversy that began when Bentley’s wife of 50 years, Dianne Bentley, filed for divorce.
Bentley’s children began to suspect he was suffering from dementia, going so far as to try to trick him into a psychological evaluation. But his wife suspected an affair.
She put her cell phone on record and left it in her purse near the house phone, then announced she was going on a long walk. The impeachment investigation report says that, within 59 seconds, the cell phone began to record Bentley’s side of a conversation with Mason in which he talked about physical intimacies and the need to lock the door to his office when they were together.
Dianne Bentley recorded another call between Mason and her husband, and she was able to read text messages between the two on an iPad her husband had given her, which he did not realize synced with his state-issued iPhone, according to the report. In fact, when Bentley failed to provide all of the text messages requested by the committee, it was Dianne Bentley who turned over the missing missives.
It is allegations concerning Bentley’s attempts to track down those recordings and squelch rumors of an affair that make up the bulk of the special counsel’s report, as well as forming the basis for articles of impeachment filed against the governor.
“Governor 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 concludes.
He enlisted his security detail to try to squelch rumors about an affair and twice sent an officer to break up with Mason for him. He sent officers several times to try to retrieve recordings from people he thought had them and even talked with officers about sweeping Mason’s car for listening devices.
When officers balked, objected to Bentley transporting Mason in state planes and cars or refused to carry out other tasks he assigned them that did not involve state business, Bentley punished them, the report states.
It was after he fired Spencer Collier from his post as secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and after an investigation into Collier’s handling of expenses showed no sign of wrongdoing that Collier publicly told what he knew about Bentley and Mason.
The report also describes Mason’s growing influence in state government, even after she left the governor’s office to run a nonprofit Bentley had established.
“Jennifer Ardis, who had succeeded Mason as Governor Bentley’s press secretary, stated that the Bentley-Mason relationship evolved to the point that nothing could be done in the Office without Mason’s sign-off,” the report states. “She stated that Governor Bentley’s typical reaction to any advice given without Mason present was, “What does Rebekah think about it?”
Mason even drafted a statement to be issued when the divorce was final in which she would have had Dianne Bentley say she was grateful to the people of Alabama for allowing her to serve as first lady and then say: “The erroneous and unsubstantiated media reports of the last few weeks have been very hurtful to our family and to [the Caldwell and Mason Families] [others families] as well. We ask for your continued prayers in the days and weeks to come. It has been an honor to serve this great state as your First Lady.”
Legislators have been talking about impeachment for a year and, in fact, had to create the rules that would govern the process because they were not specifically defined in the constitution.
As legislators approached impeachment hearings, pressure on Bentley increased. Last week the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe the Republican governor had broken state ethics and campaign finance laws and referred the case to the Montgomery District Attorney’s Office. Then the Republican heads of the House and Senate called on him to resign. Sunday, the state Republican Party Steering Committee joined the chorus.
Bentley’s attorneys tried to block the impeachment hearings but lost their case on appeal.
The hearing began Monday morning with Special Counsel Jack Sharman briefing the House Judiciary Committee on the overall facts of the case in a presentation that was similar to the report he issued Friday.
The committee took an afternoon break, planning to begin hearing witnesses when it returned to work. It was then that word came down about Bentley’s decision, and the committee adjourned.
Bentley is far from the only Alabama politician who has left office under questionable circumstances; he’s the third high-ranking official in less than a year. Former House Speaker Mike Hubbard lost his position after being convicted of ethics charges and Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended after being found to have violated judicial ethics.