The empty chair in State Auditor Jim Zeigler’s office Monday served as a perfect allegory for what Gov. Robert Bentley has become.
In the wake of the scandal that erupted from revelations about his bizarre relationship with former chief adviser Rebekah Mason, Bentley is a king without a throne. While no one could possibly have expected Bentley to show up and be grilled publicly during Zeigler’s made-for-TV event, it’s doubtful the governor could have walked in and successfully answered tough questions, even if he wanted to do so.
Interview opportunities with the Luv Guv have become rare since tapes secretly recorded by his ex-wife went public, causing anyone with half a brain to seriously doubt whether Bentley and Mason’s affair denials over the past year had been truthful. But even after everyone got to hear Bentley discuss his favorite method of grabbing Mason’s boobs and talk of moving his beleaguered secretary, Wanda, away from his office door so she might not hear whatever noises they make, the governor has continued to deny a physical affair with his powerful and well-paid former adviser.
When Bentley has appeared in public, he’s been as snippy as a Yorkshire terrier. He snaps at reporters and dictates what he will and won’t talk about, as if that’s going to stop journalists from asking about the scandal that could drive him from office or get him indicted.
So Zeigler’s attempt to summon Bentley to the auditor’s office to publicly answer questions about his use of state property in the furtherance of his relationship with Mason was little more than a show. But it does once again put the heat on the governor to explain himself. With criminal investigations underway, ethics charges filed and impeachment efforts moving forward, the state auditor isn’t helping Bentley’s comfort level.
Last week Bentley put forth a massive $800 million plan for prison reform that seemed stunning given the deep cuts to just about anything funded by state money. The obvious joke is the governor wants to spruce up the prisons to make sure his stay is more comfortable, but that’s just mean.
Still, just the recent revelation that a state helicopter was used to fly Bentley’s wallet from Tuscaloosa to Fort Morgan when he stormed off to the family beach house following an argument with his wife leaves many of us wondering exactly what boundaries the governor observed when it came to making sure he and Mason had breast-cupping time.
Zeigler didn’t bring any specifics to the table Monday, but he was clear as to what he wanted to ask Bentley about — should the governor have shown up.
“Using state money or state facilities or state resources for personal use is problematic under the ethics law and possibly under other laws,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking at using state resources for personal use.”
Zeigler has already filed a complaint against the governor and Mason with the state Ethics Commission. He doubled down with his April 21 order for Bentley to show up in his office, an order the governor said he would not follow well before Monday’s dog-and-pony show. After all, Zeigler really has no power to enforce such an order, nor would he be able to do much even if he did find malfeasance.
“If there was anything that appeared to constitute a criminal violation, I would refer those to the district attorney of Montgomery County,” he said. “If things turned up that constituted use of official office for personal gain, I would turn those over to the Ethics Commission as a supplement to the initial report.”
Should his investigations turn up anything “impeachable,” Zeigler said he would send that info to the House of Representatives, which is struggling with its own inability to legally compel Bentley to respond to any subpoena it might issue.
That two of his main opponents seem to have limited power to take him out may give Bentley some solace, but he’s still playing a shell game he’s unlikely to win. Certainly the sketchy way Bentley had outside sources paying Mason, as well as former Chief of Staff Seth Hammett, indicates a lack of normal care in terms of how insulated the governor was from outside influences. That Mason’s husband was given a high-paying job running an agency, despite having no obvious qualifications to do so, also sounds a few alarms.
Zeigler wants to ask the governor about his spending of discretionary funds, travel and phone calls involving Mason, use of state planes, as well as “all efforts made by your office or anyone acting in concert with your office to suppress evidence of or cover up misuse of state funds or other wrongdoing involving the use of state funds.”
Bentley has made it clear he’s going to fight until the bitter end, so it was no surprise his chair at Zeigler’s presser sat empty. It would be nice to hear what the governor might say about such matters since he’s spoken only in generalities so far and just offered a blanket assurance he’d done nothing illegal as he wooed Mrs. Mason. But post-Tapemageddon it’s hard to believe much of what he says.
How far the House will get with impeachment is anyone’s guess at this point. At first it didn’t even seem there would be enough state representatives signing on to get the impeachment effort off the ground, but some last-minute wrangling rounded up the necessary support. Still, it seems unlikely.
What does appear more probable is that agencies with real subpoena power — the Feds and the Attorney General’s Office — will eventually get to the bottom of whether the Walletcopter was kosher or public funds or property were misused in any way. When that happens, Bentley will have no choice as to what he will and won’t answer.
In the meantime Alabama is stuck with an empty chair as governor.
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