The Alabama House of Representatives committee considering the impeachment of Gov. Robert Bentley voted unanimously last week to move forward with its investigation of the state’s embattled chief executive.
Bentley has been under fire since his extramarital relationship with a former staffer was revealed in early 2016.
The 9-0 decision by the House Judiciary Committee was a reversal of the the body’s previous course of action, which — pursuant to a letter from former state Attorney General Luther Strange — had been to halt the legislative investigation into the governor until related work was completed by law enforcement.
Just over two months after that letter effectively put the impeachment process on hold, Bentley appointed Strange to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions’ ascent to the position of U.S. Attorney General, a move some politicos said “stinks.”
“By the attorney general vacating the office, the governor gets to single-handedly choose a lawyer to investigate him and his girlfriend,” Jim Zeigler, Alabama’s Republican state auditor, said of the appointment. “The whole thing stinks … We’ve had real problems in state government in Alabama over the past year. It’s got the potential to get much worse.”
That sentiment — that Bentley would replace his own investigator — clearly held some weight, as Steven Marshall, Strange’s replacement as state AG, recused himself from the investigation of the governor soon after taking office, instead appointing former Montgomery County prosecutor Ellen Brooks to oversee the probe of the state’s top politician.
The House Judiciary Committee originally met last Monday to consider whether to move forward with its proceedings, but there were some concerns that a letter to the body from Brooks — Bentley’s new prosecutor — could muddy the legal waters.
In her letter, Brooks cautioned the committee that an early 20th century legal precedent may cause double jeopardy concerns when it comes to whether the impeachment counts as legally binding against the state in future proceedings — a situation that could potentially tie the attorney’s hands if impeachment fell through.
Rep. Chris England, a Democratic member of the committee — and a lawyer — said while he’d read both former AG Strange and Brooks’ letters, he’s convinced the impeachment investigation should move forward.
“This is not to suggest that I personally believe that the governor should or should not be impeached,” England wrote to his followers on social media. “That is the purpose of the investigation. However, this needs to be brought to a close one way or another. I believe we owe that to you.”
After reconvening last Tuesday, members of the House Judiciary Committee agreed with England, passing a resolution ordering the body’s investigator to “resume his activities and investigation and to coordinate as much as is practical and possible with any other related investigations and proceedings so that we will stand better ready to move forward with public hearings when appropriate.”
The House Judiciary Committee will continue to meet periodically throughout the regular legislative session, although it’s unclear which will come first: a vote on impeachment or the conclusion of the criminal probe into the governor.