After more than nine hours in a closed-door session on Wednesday, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Gov. Robert Bentley broke state ethics and campaign finance laws on four occasions.
The commission began its regularly scheduled meeting at 9:30 a.m., then went into executive session to hear testimony from a number of witnesses including Bentley, whose staff and security attempted to shield him from the press’ view.Bentley has been under fire since his admittedly inappropriate relationship with former staffer Rebekah Caldwell Mason went public over a year ago. While Bentley has admitted to having “inappropriate conversations” with Mason in a series of now-notorious recordings captured by his ex-wife Dianne, he has repeatedly denied having a “physical affair” or misusing public funds.
“Today, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe that Governor Robert Bentley committed violations of both the Alabama Ethics Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act,” a statement from the commission said. “We have referred those matters to the Montgomery County District Attorney for further consideration and possible prosecution.”
The statement from the ethics body, which voted 3-1 on two recommendations for prosecution and 4-0 on two others, called its investigation of Bentley’s actions thorough and evidence-based.
“Over the course of this year-long investigation, the Alabama Ethics Commission issued more subpoenas than have been issued by the Commission since it was given subpoena power,” the statement reads. “They interviewed over 45 witnesses and have analyzed over 33,000 documents in the course of their investigation. The staff of the Commission has worked tirelessly and thoroughly to investigate every Complaint that we received. The evidence was reviewed and tested multiple times by career lawyers.”All information gleaned by the committee — along with its recommendations for prosecution — will be sent to Montgomery County DA Daryl Bailey, who was appointed by Bentley to replace former prosecutor Ellen Brooks when she abruptly retired from the post in 2014.
In an odd coincidence, Brooks is conducting a separate criminal probe of the governor on behalf of Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall. Marshall recused himself from the case because he was also appointed to his current post by Bentley to take the place of Sen. Luther Strange.
While the conclusions of the commission’s investigation are not public, one of the ethics complaints against the governor filed by State Auditor Jim Zeigler and obtained by Lagniappe outlines allegations stemming from Bentley’ potential misuse of state property and campaign funds.
In Nov. 2015, for example, Bentley treated Mason and other staff members to a Celine Dion concert in Las Vegas while in town for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association using his own campaign funds.
That donation, though, was made outside the legal campaigning window, which likely violated state campaign finance law. After the trip became public, RGA refunded the money to Bentley’s campaign.
On other occasions, Zeigler’s complaint says, Bentley used state funds and property — including a state-owned aircraft — to facilitate his alleged affair. Mason has been a passenger on the state plane as recently as President Donald Trump’s inauguration — after her relationship with Bentley began unfolding in local and national headlines.
Zeigler’s complaint also outlined in detail charges that Bentley punished law enforcement officers for their attempts to cooperate with the investigation and prosecution of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who himself was convicted of a dozen felony ethics violations last year.Former Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Spencer Collier, who was fired by Bentley, has backed up that claim in his comments to the press and in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the governor and Mason in 2016.
Wednesday’s vote gives more weight to the totality of allegations that have been made against Bentley by Zeigler, Collier and others — weight that may fuel an ongoing impeachment probe also embroiling the two-term Republican governor.
On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee and the public are expected to see the findings from a report being prepared by Attorney Jack Sharmin, who was appointed by the Committee to investigate whether there’s evidence that Bentley has committed any impeachable offense.
However, that’s just one of a number of ways Bentley could potentially be unseated before his second terms ends. If convicted on any of charges recommended by the ethics commission, Bentley would immediately be removed from office and would almost certainly face jail time.
“Intentional violations of the Alabama Ethics Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act are Class B felonies,” the commission’s statement concluded. “The range of punishment for a Class B felony is a prison sentence of between 2 and 20 years per violation, and a fine of up to $20,000.00, per violation.”