In light of the ongoing scandal involving Gov. Robert Bentley, State Auditor Jim Zeigler recently described the governor’s office as “destructive and dysfunctional,” saying he “could not remember when things have been this bad in Montgomery.”
Zeigler made the comments in a Fowl River Common Sense Campaign event April 16 as part of a “lack of progress report” on the ongoing efforts to unseat Bentley following allegations he used state funds to facilitate and cover up an affair with his former senior policy adviser, Rebekah Mason.
Earlier this month, Rep. Ed Henry (R-Cullman) submitted articles of impeachment against Bentley via a resolution that has so far failed to move. The House is also expected to set up a committee investigation related to an impeachment, but with fewer than 10 legislative days remaining in the current session, Ziegler said he doesn’t think there’s enough time.“Impeachment could only come, if at all, in a future session, and the next regular session of the Legislature is in 2017,” Zeigler said. “The people of Alabama want and need a solution to the serious problems in the governor’s office soon, not in 2017.”
Another avenue being pursued is a constitutional amendment that would add a mechanism for recalling elected officials, but Zeigler said bills aiming to do that in the House and Senate haven’t seen much traction with legislators.
As a more palatable option, Zeigler is currently pushing for an “executive recall” allowing citizens to recall only the state’s six constitutional officers, including the governor.
“The problem that we’re facing in Montgomery now is in one place, the governor’s office, and by not having a recall for legislators, [a bill] is far more likely to pass both houses,” he said.
It’s still unclear who might sponsor that legislation if it’s unveiled, though Zeigler said he expects a bill could be filed sometime this week that would set “10 percent of registered voters” as the threshold to trigger a recall and prevent any “automatic elevation into the governorship.”
If all goes according to Zeigler’s plan, the measure would be on the general election ballot in November with a special election scheduled within 120 days of a successful recall vote.
“This measure would give ‘We, the People’ control over our governor,” Zeigler told the Tea Party crowd.
Zeigler was the first public official to take any action after audio recordings of suggestive conversations between the governor and Mason were made public March 23 — filing a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission over compensation Mason received through Bentley’s campaign and the Alabama Council for Excellence in Government (ACEGOV).
A nonprofit organization established by Bentley in 2015, ACEGOV paid Mason’s salary in recent months, which Ziegler believes is unethical because its donors are “unknown.”
Though Mason has since resigned, Zeigler said how she was paid is more relevant than any allegations of an extramarital affair. While he briefly mentioned his ethics complaint Saturday, Zeigler said he could not speak on how it’s proceeding.
“I am, for the first time in my life, under a gag order,” Zeigler said. “I’ve been instructed not to comment on the ethics investigation, so I will comply with that directive.”
Collier, Bentley continue to make headlines
A pair of stories about Bentley’s office emerged last week, one even he said “looks bad.”
The first was a recent report detailing a state helicopter being dispatched to retrieve Bentley’s wallet from Tuscaloosa and fly it to him at his beach house near Fort Morgan.
“In December 2014, I received notification from Gov. Bentley that he traveled to his home in Fort Morgan and inadvertently left his wallet in Tuscaloosa,” Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Stan Stabler said in a statement. “I contacted my chain of command and ultimately received approval from former Secretary Spencer Collier to utilize ALEA’s aviation unit to pick up and deliver the wallet to the governor.”
Stabler, who replaced Collier after his falling out with Bentley, said the governor “did not request a specific method be used to relay his wallet,” and said the Dignitary Protection Unit is required to make sure “protectees are fully prepared to perform their duties as constitutional officers.”
Though Lagniappe was unable to reach him for comment, Collier has previously denied Stabler’s claims he approved the use of ALEA property to transport the governor’s wallet.
Just a few days later, another story of Bentley’s use of state aircrafts surfaced related to a trip he, Mason and two other staff members took to Las Vegas in November 2015 to attend the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference. The trip included a Celine Dion concert, but after the details became public the governor’s office released a statement calling previous reports “misleading.”
“RGA reimbursed the governor’s campaign account, which then reimbursed the state for use of the state airplane to transport the governor and his staff to the conference,” said Communications Director Jennifer Ardis, who was also on the trip in question. “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.”
In the statement, Ardis said “security was with the governor at every meal he ate,” and went on to say Bentley “stayed at the same hotel and on the same floor” as his security and staff — a response to Collier’s claims in other reports that the governor tried to “alter his security plan” on the trip.
Also last week, Ardis responded to a March 24 request from Lagniappe to verify the employment status of Collier’s wife, Melissa Collier, who was employed through the governor’s office as an “assistant director of scheduling.” After several emails, the confirmation came 19 days after it was requested and after the information had been provided to other publications.
According to Ardis, Melissa Collier was hired Dec. 1, 2015, and is “currently on medical leave taking care of a family member.” Her name has also been removed from the staff section of the governor’s website.
In her position, Melissa Collier was making roughly $50,000 in salary until the end of March, when the last payment before her medical leave was posted.