There’s a responsibility crisis in Montgomery, not just an ethical one. Headlines of late, including Lagniappe’s cover story from last week, bring our state’s political turmoil to the forefront.
Alabama’s top judge, Chief Justice Roy Moore, has been suspended from office for violations of judicial ethics canons and faces possible removal from the bench for the second time in his career. The Speaker of the Alabama House, Rep. Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn), is currently on trial for 23 felony counts of ethics violations. Gov. Robert Bentley is facing multiple ethics complaints, intense media scrutiny, and federal and state investigations after he admitted to making inappropriate comments to a former female advisor, but denied a physical relationship, despite leaked recordings of Bentley’s phone conversations suggesting otherwise.
In all of this upheaval on Goat Hill, these top politicians have shirked their responsibility to the public by refusing to engage the facts of their own malfeasance. Instead, the elite in Montgomery partake liberally in political amnesia and blame-spreading, posturing themselves into a position from a television sitcom: Did I do that?
The “did I do that” attitude seems all too often standard, particularly for the governor’s office.
First, on the very surface, there’s the big, obvious omission on the part of Gov. Bentley: his relationship with his former senior aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier and others claim that a nonprofessional relationship between Mason and Bentley had been covered up for years before it came to light, with recordings of the two — a source of paranoia for the governor — always potentially floating around.
Then, though, there are the little things that, over time, add up to an administration with an Urkel attitude.
When it was revealed Bentley and Mason attended a Celine Dion concert in Las Vegas together during a trip for the Republican Governors’ Association’s conference, questions were raised about whether Bentley had shrugged off his security to participate. Collier said in a statement, “The governor’s request for no security and then lessened security was highly unusual and against protocol. Again, this further demonstrates that the governor’s actions and behavior made the job[s] of ALEA’s Protective Services Troopers and Special Agents very difficult and often put them in awkward situations.”
In response, Bentley’s office released what seems to be a carefully crafted statement that doesn’t specifically deny the allegations, but does say security stayed with the governor in Las Vegas and was present for his meals:
“The governor, his security and traveling staff all stayed at the same hotel and on the same floor,” the statement reads. “He did attend a Celine Dion concert with his traveling staff during one of his free evenings at the conference. The concert tickets were paid for personally by the governor. Security was with the governor at every meal he ate.”
Then, only after state media scrutinized the funding of the trip to Las Vegas itself, the Republican Governor’s Association wired Bentley’s campaign fund more than $11,000 to cover the trip. That move itself may not have helped, though, because according to campaign finance experts such as Tom Scovill, the RGA’s “reimbursement,” which came months after Bentley’s campaign ended, was illegal.
“Although Bentley can spend campaign funds on ‘expenses of the office held,’ he may only accept contributions for the purpose of affecting the outcome of an election,” Scovill told several press outlets after the donation was reported. “Spending campaign funds to attend the RGA conference is not a permissible expenditure because it was not an ‘expense of the office held.’ The contribution window closed 120 days after the election, in March 2015. Reimbursement is merely another name for ‘contribution.’ Bentley is a campaign finance scofflaw.”
The governor’s rebuttal? He refused to comment.
Now, in more recent days, the governor’s office has on a few more occasions taken up use of its favorite line: Did I do that?
In one interesting turn of events, Baldwin County officials sounded off at the governor when they realized the state had built a wall extending from a state-owned beach house in Gulf Shores across a public accessway to the beach. “It’s a big deal to us,” one official told local media at a news conference. Bentley’s response? “I didn’t build the wall,” he said. “You can tell by my hands, I didn’t build the wall. People make a big deal out of stuff that isn’t a major issue. Everything will be fine.”
In another public relations hiccup for Bentley, many statewide media outlets have begun criticizing the governor’s use of personal — instead of state — email, something many Republicans have criticized presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for doing during her time as secretary of state. Bentley’s answer? You got it. “There’s nothing being hidden” in his personal emails. I guess we should just take his (and Clinton’s) word for it, right?
Finally, after years of hearing about “nondisclosure agreements” among top politicos in Montgomery, the governor’s office, in compliance with an open records request, recently released so-called “NDAs” signed by 87 members of Bentley’s staff and top advisors — with the exception of Rebekah Caldwell Mason — saying that the employees cannot reveal to the public any information they obtain from their position.
Bentley’s reaction to criticism of these gag orders on some of the state’s top officials? You guessed it.
“Did I do that?”
For the record, Bentley says he didn’t do that. He claims his former chief of staff, Seth Hammett, began the practice of gagging employees. Ironically, we’ll never know.
Hammett, now out of office, was the first to sign away his right to speak.