After announcing changes to the way coastal insurance policies are written on the Gulf Coast, Gov. Robert Bentley was once again confronted with questions about a growing number of scandals plaguing his office.
Bentley has spent most of the last six weeks denying allegations of a long-running affair with his former political advisor Rebekah Caldwell Mason, but recent reports have alleged the governor also forced the members of staff to sign confidentiality agreements in an attempt to keep their relationship under wraps.
In Spanish Fort on Tuesday, Bentley denied any involvement with making staff sign the confidentiality agreements, saying it was his former chief of staff Seth Hammett’s idea.“I did not do that, that was done by my chief of staff at the time, Seth Hammett,” Bentley said. “He made a lot of changes, and I allowed him to do those things. But that was his idea and that’s why we did it.”
Bentley went on to defend the confidentiality agreements, arguing that other state administrations and corporations have similar policies.
“This is something that is modeled after many states,” Bentley told reporters. “Many states do that. I don’t know that all of them do, but many do. Corporations do that. (Hammett) is actually the one who came up with that idea.”
Hammett, who resigned from Bentley’s office in October of 2015, left with some controversy after it was revealed he was being paid by an energy cooperative in Covington County instead of the state of Alabama.
According to statewide media reports Hammett, along with governor’s former spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis, attorney David Byrne Jr., deputy chief of staff Jon Barganier and aide Zach Lee signed nondisclosure agreements at the Bentley’s request.
The same reports go on to say Mason was the only staff member who was not required to sign such an agreement.
Baldwin County commissioners were alerted to the wall’s construction in April when residents of the Surfside Shores neighborhood complained the wall was blocking access to their beachfront property near the corner of Gulf Way Drive and Beach Shore Drive.
On May 6, commissioners announced an agreement with the governor’s office to remove the wall at a time that has yet to be determined.
The beach mansion became a source of controversy last December after Bentley’s office revealed it was being renovated with $1.8 million in BP funds just months after the governor lost his personal beach residences in a high-profile divorce.
The mansion has been abandoned for almost 20 years after suffering damages in 1997 by Hurricane Danny. This week, Bentley again touted the need for the renovations, but said the issue over the wall’s right-of-way was “not as big a deal as people think it is.”
“We will get that worked out. The people down there really want that eyesore fixed up,” Bentley said of the mansion. “That devalues their property down there. We are having to work through some things that most people don’t have to, as far as strips of land that have never been used, been neglected forever and not used by anyone. So, we’ve got to make sure the lines are in the right places, but we are going to work all that out.”
According to Bentley, “people have made a big deal out of something that is not a major issue.”
The county does not allow residents to build fences, walls or anything else on Baldwin County property, and the Commissioner’s maintain the right to remove any unauthorized structures on its property. Previously, Commissioner Chris Elliott said county leaders would treat the governor the same as anyone else who encroached on county property.
“I didn’t have anything to do with the wall,” Bentley said. “I didn’t build the wall, people think I went down there and… you can look at my hands and tell I didn’t build nothing. But we are going to work through that.”
Finally, Bentley brought up the lingering possibility of a special legislative session — something he said was needed to address pending issues with Medicaid funding, state prison reform and the distribution of the state’s $1 billion settlement with BP.
“We’ve got to look at funding Medicaid, and we’ve certainly got to find a permanent solution for that,” Bentley said. “I am working with my Medicaid commissioner right now to see what cuts are going to have to be done in order to deal with the amount of money we have. We also need to finish the job we started on solving the prison issue. I think we are very, very close to that.”
Though Bentley gave no indication of how a follow-up session might be scheduled, Senate Budget Chairman Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) told Lagniappe last week that any special session would likely be held off until the summer.
The timing could become relevant, as Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard goes on trial in Lee County next week over a flurry of public corruption charges. When asked, Pittman said the trial should not overlap with any subsequent special session.
Reporter Jason Johnson contributed to this report.