When ousted Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier took to the microphone at his attorney’s office in Montgomery March 23, what followed were details of a political scandal fit for daytime television.
Allegations of wrongful termination and a long-rumored affair and its cover up were being aired in real time by a man who had been a gubernatorial cabinet member the day before.
The news conference was called less than 24 hours after Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley fired Collier, a longtime friend, as the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Bentley’s statement on Collier’s termination cited a “possible misuse of state funds” uncovered by an internal investigation in the ALEA.
Collier not only denied any misappropriation, but proceeded to make the first public comments by a state official corroborating an alleged affair between Bentley and his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. The news followed months of speculation that the governor’s relationship with Mason was at the root of former first lady Dianne Bentley’s filing for divorce last August.
However, only hours later, Bentley held his own press conference and despite admitting to “inappropriate conversations,” said he never had a “physical affair” with Mason.
Recordings have since been released to statewide media by members of Bentley’s family that capture multiple phone conversations between Bentley and Mason.
“The recordings that were referred to by Spencer Collier were actually made two years ago,” Bentley said during a March 23 press conference. “Since that time, I’ve apologized to members of my family, to Mrs. Mason and her family. I apologized to them for any conversation and behavior that was inappropriate.”
Birmingham-based Yellowhammer News, an online publication, has continued to publish several recordings and as of this week, more than an hour of recorded conversation has been made public. The recordings capture Bentley discussing physical encounters with someone he refers to repeatedly as “Rebekah.”
“Listen, Rebekah. Listen to me, I love you. I go through a lot and you go through a lot — we both go through a lot of trouble in trying to be together,” the governor says on the tapes.
Perhaps the most damning are clips of Bentley appearing to prioritize his time with Mason over state business in one portion, when he reads a text message asking him to schedule time to sign legislative bills into law.
“And you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking, ‘That time isn’t [a legislator’s] time, that’s the time I want to spend with Rebekah,’” Bentley is heard saying.
In the fallout of the allegations, some state officials and hoards of citizens have called for the governor’s resignation, though Bentley has said leaving office is not an idea he’s entertaining.
Several questions also remain about how much a private group, the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, is paying Mason to advise Bentley — questions that also form the basis of an ethics complaint filed by State Auditor Jim Zeigler last week.
Even more curious, though, is how Bentley and Collier, who even amid the controversy referred to one another as friends, arrived at opposing press conferences last week.
Collier’s history with Bentley
A former high school teacher, Collier put his degree in criminal justice to use with the Prichard Police Department in the mid ‘90s before rising to the rank of corporal during a 10-year career as an Alabama State Trooper. He remained employed in several positions even after being elected as the State Representative for House District 105 in 2002.
It was in the House that Collier met Bentley, District 63’s freshman representative from Tuscaloosa. After both were re-elected in 2006, the pair served together on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee beginning in 2007.
When Bentley decided to enter the gubernatorial race in 2010, Collier was the only member of the Mobile County Legislative delegation to endorse Bentley over Mobile-native Bradley Byrne, who was heavily favored to win the seven-man primary race.
After Bentley’s election in 2010, Collier was tapped to lead the state’s Department of Homeland Security despite winning his third term in the House. Current Rep. David Sessions (R-Grand Bay) replaced him following a special election.
In 2012, Bentley again found an appointment for Collier, this time as the chairman of the Integrated State Law Enforcement Task Force, which underwent an 18-month process to combine several of the state’s law enforcement agencies into ALEA.
With ALEA’s creation came the need for an agency secretary, a position Bentley appointed Collier to in 2013. He was active in that role until Feb. 17, when he was placed on “medical leave” by Bentley and replaced by Interim ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler. Collier’s placement on medical leave had political observers buzzing and cushioned any surprise that might have come from his termination last week.
Almost immediately, Stabler initiated an internal investigation through ALEA’s Integrity Unit, ultimately concluding a “possible misuse of state funds” occurred under Collier’s leadership.
Collier has denied those allegations, and his claims seem to be at least somewhat supported by an audit of ALEA conducted by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts. Released less than month before Collier’s termination, the report noted “no discrepancies” after a six-year review of the ALEA’s finances.
Last week Collier told the media his problems with Bentley arose in 2014 after he confronted the governor over the now-public recordings of his conversations with Mason. Collier said he and other ALEA officers, including Stabler, were aware of the recordings and explicit text messages between Mason and Bentley — a claim Stabler denies.
Despite the tension, Collier remained active in his position until Feb. 17. Initially, Bentley said the absence was due to a back surgery, but he later confirmed Collier was placed on leave after disobeying his direct order not to submit an affidavit denying a state investigation into allegations against Assistant Attorney General Matt Hart.
“I’m a law enforcement officer, and I have a duty to cooperate with the Attorney General’s office,” Collier said of disobeying Bentley.
Hart has been leading the prosecution of Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who is currently facing 23 charges alleging he used his office for personal gain. During last week’s news conference, Collier confirmed previous reports that Mason and Bentley were together during the meeting on Feb. 17, which resulted in several ALEA staff members Collier described as “non-politicos” being fired or reassigned.
Bentley has not issued any further statements on the scandal, but has denied Collier’s claims of efforts to cover up the alleged affair as well as other claims public funds were used to facilitate it. Collier did not return calls for this story, so Lagniappe was unable to ask for specifics with regard to where he believes public funds may have been used, or to explain why he didn’t act sooner if he believed state funds were being used inappropriately.
Issues on the Gulf Coast
Though Collier has been labeled the “whistleblower” in a long-rumored political scandal, his tenure in Montgomery was also marked by a number incidents in Bayou La Batre that put his own name into local headlines.
After leaving his job as a state trooper, Collier became a private investigator with the Cunningham Bounds Law Firm in Mobile. He kept the job until leaving in 2006 to take a position as the executive director of the Alabama Safety Institute, a nonprofit traffic safety organization that provides referral services to local courts in Mobile County.
While still serving in the Statehouse, Collier left ASI in 2009. At the time he told Lagniappe he wanted to return to private work with Cunningham Bounds.
A year later, the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill left Collier overseeing the initial relief funding for the coastal communities in District 105. Awarded to the state, funds were split between the coastal counties and former Gov. Bob Riley tasked a pair of legislators in each county with overseeing the early relief efforts.
In Mobile County, the use of around $10 million in local allocations from BP was examined by Collier and former Rep. Ben Brooks, who is currently a Mobile County Circuit Judge.
However, once plans for the funding was finalized, Brooks acknowledged having “a problem” with Bayou La Batre using its longtime grant writer, Janey Galbraith, to administer the BP funds establishing the Vessels of Opportunity program.
“I had a problem with hundreds of thousands of dollars going to administering the funds and not the people who needed the money most,” Brooks said at the time of Galbraith’s $500,000 fee.
Used in several states, the program was intended to employ out-of-work bat captains and seafood workers in cleanup and recovery efforts, but many protested the city’s involvement after J&W Marine Enterprise Inc. was awarded $7.4 million through the program to hire boaters. At the time the company was employing former Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright’s brother, Gordy Wright.
Addressing the concerns in 2010, Collier downplayed the Wright connection, and the program was ultimately submitted to Riley and approved by BP. It was only a year later that Stan Wright and Galbraith were both indicted on federal fraud charges for an unrelated incident involving funds received after Hurricane Katrina.
“They try to say there was an effort to give the contract to the mayor, to the mayor’s brother. Let’s put that in context. The discussion was, was there a way to utilize one of the seafood associations, which would be what we thought the fairest way to see that commercial fisherman go to work,” Collier noted at the time.
One of those hired was Collier’s son, Christopher. His wife, Melissa — a registered nurse — was also paid through the program to administer drug tests to applicants, using an LLC Collier established in May 2010 and dissolvedthe following January.
Collier’s oversight of the BP funding followed a leave of absence from his contract job with the city of Bayou La Batre related to economic development — a position he held while representing the area in the House. His departure came after Alabama’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling preventing “double dipping,” which barred legislators from holding second jobs as public employees.
A request to Bayou La Batre for contacts and invoices related to Collier’s economic development role is pending, but sources familiar with city operations at the time say he was paid approximately $1,000 per week.
In 2013, BP funding came up again when four members of Collier’s family pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges related to falsified claims for compensation in the wake of the oil spill. Those arrested included his oldest son, Christopher, two of his brothers, a former sister-in-law and his nephew.
At the time of the indictment, Collier said his son was “an adult, and like any other adult he is responsible for his own actions,” adding he fully respected the legal process. Spencer Collier’s name was never mentioned in case.
At age 24, Collier’s son Christopher was ordered to pay restitution to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust in the amount of $34,538.99 for his role in the combined $225,000 fraud scheme. Christopher Collier was required to participate in a location-monitoring program for 60 days — a reduction from the minimum sentencing guidelines. He later spent a short time in federal prison after subsequent arrests resulted in his probation being revoked.
Multiple calls and messages to Spencer Collier seeking comment on this story were not returned.
Mason’s compensation, ethics complaint
While some in state politics have called for amendments to allow for a gubernatorial recall and others are calling for Bentley’s impeachment, State Auditor Jim Zeigler said a conviction on a felony ethics violation would automatically remove the governor from office.
Zeigler told Lagniappe he expects the Alabama Ethics Commission will start an investigation soon based on the complaint he filed March 25 against Bentley and Mason.
“The most serious of the allegations is the ‘dark money’ group Bentley set up to receive money from unknown donors to pay Rebekah Caldwell Mason as a senior policy adviser,” Zeigler told Lagniappe. “Less than two months ago, the ethics commission issued an advisory opinion that such a scheme is presumed to violate the state ethics law.”
The “dark money” group Zeigler referred to is the Alabama Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit formed in 2015 by Bentley’s former legal adviser, Cooper Shattuck.
Though Mason’s current compensation hasn’t been confirmed, Zeigler’s complaint claims she received $312,000 from Bentley’s re-election campaign in 2014 and another $15,000 from ACEGOV. Because the donors for the organization are unknown, Zeigler says her compensation is clearly is at odds with the ethics opinion released in February.
That opinion, 2015-16, cites a section of the state’s ethics law declaring “it is necessary that the identity, expenditures, and activities of certain persons” who engage in efforts to persuade members of the executive branch “be publicly and regularly disclosed.”
The opinion concludes an employee paid from a source other than public money but who performs all of the functions of a public-sector employee “cannot serve under that arrangement without violating the fundamental principles underlying the Ethics Act,” unless approval is given from the Commission on a case-by-case basis.
Lagniappe reached out to the Ethics Commission to see if the commissioners who unanimously endorsed the opinion believe it applies to Mason’s compensation through ACEGOV. So far, a response has not been received, but Zeigler thinks it’s “as clear as a bell.”
Despite the timing, Zeigler said the governor’s alleged affair is irrelevant to his complaint.
“This particular ethics problem about the pay scheme would exist whether there was an affair going on or not, and I’ve been receiving information about problems in the Bentley administration for at least six months,” Zeigler said. “The written statements and news conference of Spencer Collier just connected the dots and filled in some blanks, and that was the reason I was able to go forward at this time.”
There have also been unconfirmed reports of ongoing federal investigations, as well as one by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, even though his only official statement came last Friday and was short on details.
“My office has a strong record of probing illegal activity in this state and we will continue to do our job,” Strange said. “That said, pursuant to our long-standing policy regarding pending criminal investigations, I will have no further comment at this time.”