A lawsuit against Robert Bentley will proceed now that a judge has found the sovereign immunity enjoyed by state officials can’t shield the former governor from any liability he’d have if former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier’s legal action against him is successful.
The lawsuit was filed in Montgomery County in April of 2016, shortly after Collier blew the whistle on Bentley’s long-rumored affair with his former staff member, Rebekah Mason.
Prior to going public with his knowledge of the affair and the now-infamous recording of a phone conversation between Bentley and Mason, Collier and several of his top staff members were fired from Alabama Law Enforcement Agency at the governor’s behest.Collier has claimed his termination in 2016 and the investigation into a “possible misuse of funds” that was used to justify it were part of a conspiracy to defame his character and remove him from office based on what he knew about Bentley’s relationship with Mason.
Mason herself is named as a defendant in the lawsuit as is Collier’s replacement, former ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler, and the agency’s former legal counsel, Michael Robinson.
With his order Thursday afternoon, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin dismissed Collier’s wrongful termination claims against Bentley and the other defendants on the grounds that, as ALEA Secretary, Collier served “at the pleasure of the governor.”
As such, Griffin concluded that “any ill motives” Bentley had with respect to his termination as alleged by Collier would be “immaterial.” However, because sovereign immunity can only be claimed when a state official is acting within the bounds of his or her job, Collier’s charges of defamation, invasion of privacy and conspiracy were allowed to move forward against Bentley.
“With respect to Collier’s tort claims against Governor Robert Bentley, the Supreme Court has made clear that a constitutional officer can be held individually liable in tort for conduct outside the course and scope of the officer’s employment,” Griffin wrote.
Because the hearing that led to Thursday’s ruling was spurred by the defendants’ attempts to dismiss themselves from the lawsuit — a typical first move when public officials are targeted with civil action — the merits of Collier’s claims weren’t weighed by the court.
What the ruling will do, however, is move the lawsuit into its discovery phase, which will allow Collier to seek information that could validate his claims that Bentley’s actions against him were “willful, malicious, illegal, fraudulent, in bad faith and beyond [his] authority as governor.”
While there are claims in Collier’s lawsuit that cover a longer period of time, the main focus is on the flurry of news that exploded out of the governor’s office in March 2016.
The day before Collier went public about Bentley’s alleged affair, he was terminated — quite publicly — when Bentley announced that an internal ALEA investigation had “found a number of issues, including possible misuse of state funds” during Collier tenure as secretary.
Stabler, who Bentley appointed to replace Collier, made similar comments the same day.
However, a seven-month probe by then-Attorney General Luther Strange’s office found no evidence of any criminal violation on Collier’s part. In a press release detailing those findings, Strange said his office never found a “credible basis” for the criminal inquiry in the first place.
Collier — who served as the state’s top law enforcement officer — has claimed that prior to his firing and subsequent whistleblowing, he confronted Bentley about the affair and the potential legal problems associated with it, though he initiated no investigation of the matter.
He has since spoken publicly about Bentley allegedly asking him to lie about the affair, claiming he told the governor, “I love you like a father, but I won’t lie to a grand jury for you. I refuse to lie to the Attorney General’s office.”
Bentley appears to have counted on Collier to help in keeping the affair from going public and was particularly worried Heather Hannah, a staffer for former First Lady Dianne Bentley might have a copy of a tape Dianne secretly recorded of an intimate conversation between Bentley and Mason.
According to a report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of Bentley for potential impeachment, the governor told Collier in April of 2014, “to find out whether there were criminal statutes that applied to Hannah’s suspected activity and told Collier “to be prepared to arrest Hannah if the tapes were released publicly.”
The report says Collier told the governor to leave Hannah alone. But the report also says that on election night 2014, Bentley directed Collier to drive to his scheduler’s home and confront her about possibly having the tape and to “find out what you find out.” Collier drove to Greenville and confronted the scheduler, Linda Adams, in her home, asking questions about her associations with others Bentley suspected of trying to make the tape public.
Since that time, Bentley has resigned and pleaded guilty to two violations of campaign finance law, but while his criminal worries appear to be behind him, Griffin’s ruling on Thursday gave the impression that Mason’s may not be.In a conciliatory victory for the defendants, Griffin agreed to extend a stay on the civil actions Collier has brought against Mason until an unspecified criminal investigation against her can be completed.
Prior to the ruling, Mason’s attorneys argued that, because she continues to be under the cloud of a possible criminal investigation related to the issues in Collier’s lawsuit, she has the right to postpone the civil litigation to preserve her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
It remains unclear which, if any, law enforcement agency might be investigating Mason, but it’s worth noting that none of the other defendants made any similar claims despite being involved in much of the same activity from which Collier’s claims against Mason arose.
“Melissa and I are grateful for today’s ruling and look forward to our day in court,” Collier said in a brief statement after Thursday’s ruling. “We are one step closer to getting justice, not only for us but for the people of Alabama.”