When news of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s admittedly inappropriate relationship with Rebekah Caldwell Mason first surfaced, Mason and her husband made sweeping moves to protect their financial and legal interests. Having made thousands of dollars from both the state and from Bentley’s “dark money” nonprofit set up by the governor’s former legal advisor, Rebekah and Jon Mason voluntarily disclosed some income information to the public, even retroactively reporting income from the University of Alabama to the State Ethics Commission.
At the time, Rebekah Mason issued a statement patting herself and her husband on their backs for what she essentially characterized as an act of complete and utter transparency.
“I have disclosed every dime [my company] has received since its incorporation in 2013,” Mason said, “including fees paid to the company by a nonprofit which is not even required to disclose that information. If there’s a perception this is ‘dark money,’ I believe my disclosure flips the light switch on.”
No such luck. Mason’s disclosures brought up even more questions about the dubious doings of the Bentley administration, and we’re still finding out the answers. When the Masons released those records, they weren’t flipping on a light switch: they were barely switching on a flashlight. Details from a newly filed lawsuit aimed at the governor, though, aren’t just turning on a light. They’re flipping on the floodlights.
The lawsuit, which was detailed in part in a previous Montgomery Minute, was filed last month by Wendell Ray Lewis, Bentley’s former protective detail and so-called “body man.” It alleges that Lewis’ early retirement was a consequence of the fallout of Bentley’s affair with Mason, who he said had the ultimate power.
“Whatever people may say, Rebekah Mason was the governor of Alabama,” Lewis claims in the lawsuit. “People could talk to the governor, but whatever Rebekah said went … You could tell Rebekah was power-hungry.”
Power wasn’t the only thing on the Masons’ minds. The lawsuit also clarifies an arrangement where Bentley aimed to shift staff salaries away from the governor’s office budget to appear more fiscally conservative.
“On Aug. 14, 2014, Spencer Collier [former head of state law enforcement] informed Lewis that the governor had Collier moving money around to pay for an assistant to Chief of Staff Seth Hammett, Jon Barganier, to the tune of $111,000; the assistant in the Medicaid program, Stephanie Azar, to the tune of $150,000; and David Byrne, the governor’s legal advisor, to the tune of $170,000. Collier moved this money around to cover those salaries so that the governor could hide their salaries and, therefore, in the campaign, look fiscally responsible. According to Collier, those monies were federal funds and came from the Department of Homeland Security. Collier was concerned about it, and had some local police departments concerned that they were not getting federal funds.”
Indeed, during the years in question, the governor’s budget dropped from just over $2 million to just under $1.2 million, a decrease that could be entirely accounted for by the shifting of salaries like those mentioned in the lawsuit. But there’s even more.
According to the suit, politicos from Montgomery were cropping up left and right to help the governor get his alleged mistress off of the state payrolls.
“On one occasion,” the lawsuit says, “Dr. Henry Mabry, then the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said he could get Mason paid to the tune of $150,000. Paul Bentley told Lewis that Cooper Shattuck, the governor’s former legal advisor, set up the 501(c)(4) for Mason … Hammett told Lewis he had a conversation with the governor in which Hammett informed [Bentley] that because of the governor’s relationship with Mrs. Mason, Mason could not be on the state payroll, therefore the need for the 501(c)(4).”
Bentley’s political posse got their wish, and Rebekah Mason received her last taxpayer-funded salary of $66,000 in 2012. Her newly shifted salary added to Bentley’s “budget-friendly” façade, and budgets continued to drop for the office over time.
Meanwhile, one budget line item under the governor’s office increased: that of the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Volunteer Service, headed by none other than Jon Mason. In 2013, the office, also known as Serve Alabama, was budgeted only $30,811. The next year, the governor requested $147,912 for Serve Alabama, a fourfold increase during a time when the governor’s office budget “dropped” by nearly half a million dollars.
It’s not just what’s already happened that’s concerning when it comes to Bentley’s involvement with the Masons. Recently asked whether he’d rehired Rebekah Mason, Gov. Bentley said he could hire whoever he wanted; his office later clarified she is indeed not headed back to the state payrolls.
And when it comes to Jon Mason, he appears to still be serving as executive director of Serve Alabama, an essentially Cabinet-level position paying $91,000 annually — although he hasn’t received a paycheck since September, according to records from Open Alabama.
And on top of it all, Bentley and the Masons’ actions may still be affecting other individuals. Cooper Shattuck, who was hired to Bentley’s staff the same day as Rebekah Mason and set up the “dark money” group that paid her, recently resigned as the University of Alabama’s top lawyer.
Shattuck says it’s because he’s served, and he’s ready for private practice. I say maybe UA didn’t like Lewis’ lawsuit. Sometimes those floodlights are bright, but hey, at least we can see what’s happening.