While former Gov. Robert Bentley’s resignation ended what was nearly the first impeachment of a top politician in Alabama history, the cloud of the Republican’s misdeeds will likely loom large in Montgomery for some time to come.
Last Friday, the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel, Jack Sharman, released a 131-page report that is the result of multiple interviews, statements and other evidence collected by the committee totaling thousands of pages. The report and its accompanying exhibits provide an intimate view of the tangled web Alabama’s 53rd governor had woven for himself prior to his formal fall from power.
Capitol crimes and confrontations
Much of the Sharman report details violations of campaign finance law — including two charges to which Bentley eventually pleaded guilty. Those particular allegations involve a loan Bentley made to his own campaign and unlawfully failed to disclose, and a check the 74-year-old politician personally wrote and signed paying a prominent law firm to represent Rebekah Mason — for “legal fees,” according to his own note on the check’s memo line.
Despite that free legal representation, though, according to the impeachment committee, “Gov. Bentley and his associates, including Mason, refused to cooperate in any meaningful sense and, indeed, obstructed this investigation.” Obstruction in and of itself, the report notes, is grounds for impeachment.
Also laid out in the report is a potentially unlawful contribution by the Republican Governors Association meant to offset costs of a Las Vegas trip attended by Bentley and Mason that included a Celine Dion concert. The report also reveals the overall practice of funding Mason’s work for Bentley, which wasn’t paid for entirely by taxpayers but also involved a shadowy nonprofit called the Alabama Council for Excellent Government (ACEGOV).
Through that group, which the governor’s former body man, Ray Lewis, said was formed to “get Rebekah Mason paid,” and through Bentley’s campaign, Mason received close to a half-million dollars in less than two years.
Rebekah Mason’s husband, Jon, was awarded the Cabinet-level position as director of Serve Alabama in the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Volunteer Service, making $91,400 per year, according to online records; but the day after Bentley’s resignation he was fired. When asked, the former First Lady’s then-executive assistant, Heather Hannah, said she was wary of whether Jon Mason’s post was based on merit.
“Was Mr. Mason unqualified for that position?” Special Counsel Sharman asked Hannah under oath.
“It would be purely my opinion, but yes,” Hannah responded. “He had helped like behind-the-scenes newscasts and conferences with WVUA, which is the local Tuscaloosa station, but to my knowledge had no previous experience, definitely not running a state agency.”
Bow to the throne
In addition to the potential and now confirmed campaign finance crimes, the impeachment committee’s executive exposé includes extensive evidence Bentley used law enforcement resources as well as personal and political intimidation to facilitate and cover up his affair with Rebekah Mason, a reality that led to a toxic environment for all those involved.
“Gov. Bentley directed law enforcement to advance his personal interests and, in a process characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia, subjected career law enforcement officers to tasks intended to protect his reputation,” Sharman’s report concludes.
Then, in page after page, the report sets out a narrative of Bentley allegedly doing just that, particularly in an effort to find and destroy an explicit recording of Bentley and Mason that has since been released.
“For example,” page 10 of the report says, “Gov. Bentley directed law enforcement officers to end his relationship with Mason on his behalf; drive to Tuscaloosa to recover a copy of the recordings from his son; drive to Greenville to confront a longtime public servant about whether she had a copy of the recordings; and investigate who had a copy of the recordings and identify potential crimes with which they could be charged.”
The report says Bentley eventually backed off any potential investigation of the recording’s origins when law enforcement told him they would follow through any leads to their logical conclusion, even if it led to Bentley family members.
“To ensure the silence of his staff,” the report says, “Gov. Bentley encouraged an atmosphere of intimidation. Concern over the recordings appears to have become an obsession.”
Handwritten notes by Bentley’s longtime bodyguard, Ray Lewis, reflect that “atmosphere of intimidation”: “…the governor boasted about how he chewed [his scheduler] out in front of [other staffers] and stated that he thinks Stan [Stabler, a top law enforcement officer] heard,” Lewis — who guarded Bentley for years — scrawled in his planner. “He said he wants everyone to know he is not taking any shit and he is in charge.”
Lewis wrote he then “said to [Bentley] that he does not want to be accused of trying to intimidate witnesses.”
“The environment as far as work has become one of mistrust,” Lewis also noted. “Everyone is afraid to say or mention [Mason] without the possibility of being fired.”
And, according to the report, opposition to Mason and Bentley’s relationship truly was a deal breaker for the ex-governor. In part of her testimony to the committee’s special counsel, Heather Hannah revealed just how deep the rifts in the administration really were: deep enough to result in the ousting of the woman who made Bentley Alabama’s unlikely governor — his first campaign manager, Angi Smith.
“Angi Smith was relieved of her position in the governor’s office not too long after she discovered the affair,” Hannah testified. “She saw the governor and heard a conversation of the governor with Rebekah. [She] assumed it was Mrs. Bentley because of the private nature of their conversation, and when he hung up the phone she saw it was Rebekah Mason. And she immediately confronted the governor with it, and he got very angry with her and asked her to get out of the car. And so she confronted Rebekah the next day, and it was my understanding that [Mason] went immediately to the governor and the governor immediately had Angi removed from her position.”
On April 8, just days before Bentley’s resignation, Smith tweeted her thoughts. “Lesson from [Alabama politics] is never push away the people that care about you enough to tell you when you are wrong. They save you from yourself.”
Smith wasn’t the only political victim of Bentley’s personal affair. Bentley fired then-Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier after he cooperated with authorities conducting the criminal probe of then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard against the governor’s wishes. The Sharman report paraphrases Bentley’s reaction to Collier’s cooperation with law enforcement: “I don’t know why you signed that affidavit. I told you not to. I didn’t want to get in the middle of this trial, and now I’m in the middle of it.” Hubbard was eventually convicted of a dozen felonies.
Collier later filed suit against Bentley, claiming he was fired not only because of his cooperation with law enforcement, but also because he refused to facilitate and cover up the governor’s affair with Mason. However, Collier has admitted that prior to being fired, he had followed Bentley’s order to drive to Greenville and confront a government employee suspected of having access to the tape of the governor and Mason.
Lewis was also eventually fired after excessive overtime costs approved by the governor for Lewis’ constant watch over the state’s top politician was revealed. Bentley denied approving the overtime and later relieved Lewis of his duties. Lewis — like Collier — filed suit against the governor for wrongful termination.
The report also reveals some startling details about the dark working environment that apparently extended well beyond the governor’s staff and well beyond the capitol complex itself.
According to a transcript of her testimony, Hannah told Sharman the governor personally confronted her twice over a potential recording of him and Mason, once threatening that she “will never work in the state of Alabama again if you tell anyone about this [affair].”
“The second Bentley confrontation of Hannah occurred shortly thereafter when she came face-to-face with Gov. Bentley in the parking lot of the Mansion,” the report says. “Then, Gov. Bentley confronted her about his suspicion that she had bugged his office to listen to conversations between him and Mason. Hannah relates that Gov. Bentley warned her to ‘watch herself,’ that she ‘did not know what she was getting into,’ and that because he was the governor, people ‘bow to his throne.’”
Then in June 2016, according to police reports, around the time of her testimony to the Alabama Ethics Commission, Hannah found writing on the windows of her vehicle parked outside her home: “Bitch Die” and “You Will F—— Die.”
Later, after Hannah had returned from testifying, someone threw a rock through the front window of her Vestavia Hills home. She reported both incidents to police.
Flim-flam, thank you, ma’am
While a hostile workplace was standard for many, it wasn’t the case for Rebekah Mason herself.
“Meanwhile,” the impeachment report says, “Mason enjoyed a favored spot among his staff, exercising extraordinary policy authority.”
During the latter part of his tenure, Mason — who the report says was called “flim-flam” by some staffers — served in a position whose job description was personally written by Gov. Bentley. According to Ray Lewis, when legal advisers suggested changes to the description, Bentley rejected them and became agitated.
“The political advisor is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor. This person should have excellent written and verbal communication skills, exceptional time management skills with the ability to effectively multi-task, and must be able to coordinate and communicate,” the job description reads. “As an appointee of the governor one should always represent the governor’s office with honor and integrity while at work or away from work.”
The report’s appendices show that — indeed — Mason had a wide berth when it came to shaping policy. According to messages between Mason, Bentley and other top officials, the governor’s alleged mistress was apprised of nearly all happenings in the administration, even personally editing press releases, approving social media posts, and making major policy decisions. Lewis, in his lawsuit against Bentley, even claims, “whatever people may say, Rebekah Mason was the governor of Alabama.”
“A stark example of Mason’s control was her role in state budget negotiations in 2015,” the committee’s report says. “Spencer Collier told us that in years past, the budget process was initiated by a meeting with State Finance Director Bill Newton and his staff. At the conclusion of that meeting, Collier would meet with Gov. Bentley to discuss strategies for addressing any potential cuts. However, in 2015, ALEA was required to meet with Mason and Jennifer Ardis to set budget priorities.”
That meeting turned out not to be a formality, either. “Collier reported that Mason proposed closing multiple driver’s license offices throughout the state and asked ALEA to put together a plan,” the report continues. “It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Gov. Bentley’s political allies. Collier claims he reported this to the Attorney General’s office because he was concerned about a Voting Rights Act violation.”
When the closure of the DMV offices — most in majority-black counties — garnered national criticism for its disparate impact on minorities, Mason personally handled the response by the governor’s office. The closures were eventually halted after the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation threatened to sue over their effect on minorities, particularly in the state’s Black Belt region.
Bentley’s preference for Mason over other staffers was continually apparent, the report shows. Ardis, Bentley’s former press secretary who was said to have been “extremely involved in protecting the affair and helping maintain its secrecy,” was on more than one occasion forced to drive to engagements while Mason flew on the state plane. At one point Mason sent a photo of the Birmingham Bowl logo with the text “Are y’all flying or driving?”
Mason even, at one point in messages with staffers, appeared to be speaking as the governor’s personal mouthpiece, effectively issuing veto threats: “Let me throw this out there,” she wrote in response to other staffers’ concerns about a particular piece of legislation. “Gov[ernor] is going to veto the thing anyway … ”
Mason was also heavily involved in speech writing and reviewing official documents for public consumption. Not only do messages show Mason drafted Bentley’s State of the State address, they also provide insight into her control of documents such as the state flight logs. One version of the logs reviewed by Mason includes edits including the removal of air travel to a John Kasich campaign event in Mobile in lieu of language emphasizing Bentley met with Mayor Sandy Stimpson during the same visit. A Lagniappe reporter at that meeting between Bentley and Kasich confirmed that Mason was also present.
Live free or Dianne Bentley
Some of the other, more salacious portions of the Sharman report give an inside look at the extent of the ex-governor’s affair and his treatment of the then-first lady.
Not only did Bentley send his former wife of 50 years messages meant for Mason (“I love you Rebekah), Dianne Bentley was physically sickened by the whole situation, according to what she told Ray Lewis.
“Governor has changed. He is very arrogant and seems to have almost a God complex,” Lewis wrote. “Mrs. B seemed on edge. Mrs. B told me … that she is on the verge of a breakdown. She said she wakes every morning with an upset stomach. She said she is extremely depressed. She said she is taking medication just to make it through the day. She said ‘[Mason] is a whore.’ That is the first time in nearly four years that I have ever heard Mrs. Bentley ever say anything that strong. That’s like saying a cuss word for Mrs. B.”
Lewis also said Dianne Bentley believed the then-governor’s treatment of her amounted to abuse.
“Mrs. B and I talked about the governor treating her badly because she has low self-esteem and [he] knows that she will not leave. She also said that he emotionally and mentally abuses her and that she is so embarrassed because that is her … platform as first lady.”
According to Hannah’s testimony, that sad irony wasn’t lost on the governor, who made a similar observation after a “purple” event raising awareness for domestic violence.
“And I believe one of his quotes,” Hannah testified under oath, “was, oh, ‘ironic domestic violence is purple because that’s how you beat a woman black and blue,’ or something, something really terrible like that,” she said. “And Mrs. Bentley told him she felt like she was being a victim of, you know, domestic violence mentally and verbally. And he just laughed her off and said … that’s just your project.”
Like Angi Smith, another staffer, Collier Tynes (who Hannah said was hired by Bentley to “keep Dianne busy”), has spoken out since the scandal surfaced — specifically on the issue of domestic violence.
“Emotional abuse is real and dangerous,” Tynes tweeted. “Thanks to Mrs. Bentley, Alabama has [Alabama Coalition against Domestic Violence’s new website]. Find out signs of abuse and how to help.”
Later, again like Smith, Tynes shared her “lesson” from Alabama politics: “If you throw away integrity to keep your power and influence, you have already thrown away your power and influence.”
While she still had a close political hold on Bentley, and while his marriage was crumbling beneath him, Rebekah Mason emailed the governor a statement to be read by Dianne Bentley on her departure as first lady. Mrs. Bentley would indeed go on to divorce the now-criminally convicted former governor. She would never, though, read Mason’s statement.