The fact that neither Attorney General Luther Strange’s office nor a Montgomery County grand jury could find evidence to substantiate a criminal inquiry into Alabama’s former top law enforcement official has many questioning the ethics of Gov. Robert Bentley once again.
Strange announced Oct. 20 that a special prosecutions division in his office had closed the criminal inquiry into former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Director Spencer Collier that Bentley initiated in March — the day before Collier blew the whistle on the governor’s alleged affair with his former communications director, Rebekah Mason.
The criminal inquiry began after Bentley announced Collier’s termination March 22, claiming an integrity unit under the direction of interim ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler had uncovered “a number of issues, including a possible misuse of state funds” during Collier’s time as head of ALEA.
The following day, Collier denied those allegations before going public with the first credible accounts of Bentley’s long-rumored affair with Mason. Since then, the governor has admitted having “inappropriate conversations” with Mason, but has maintained for nearly seven months that he “never had a physical affair” with her.
In his statement last Thursday, Strange said despite the claims from Bentley and Stabler his office couldn’t find any “credible basis” for the allegations against Collier, adding that all of the information his office gathered had also been presented to a Montgomery County grand jury “to ensure public confidence in the investigation.”
“Numerous witnesses, including senior ALEA leadership, were called to testify, [and] in the course of the investigation, no witness provided credible evidence of criminal ‘misuse of state funds,’” Strange wrote. “No witness provided credible evidence of any other criminal violation on the part of former Secretary Collier. Finally, no witness established a credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place.”
The news appears to have vindicated Collier, who already filed a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Bentley, Mason, Stabler and others in April — a civil case still pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
So far, Bentley’s only comments on the results of the AG’s investigation came in a statement released through his office late last week.
“Based on concerns presented to me by a member of the Alabama Senate and information that was given to the then-acting secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Stan Stabler, when he assumed his position, I felt a new direction in our state law enforcement agency was needed,” Bentley wrote. “The information obtained by the ALEA integrity unit was gathered and presented to the Attorney General’s office and a determination has been made. I am very satisfied with the new direction of ALEA and its leader, Secretary Stan Stabler.”
There’s been no word from Bentley’s office yet about who the “member of the Alabama Senate” was or what their concerns about Collier might have been, and the office has yet to respond to requests from Lagniappe seeking further clarification.
However, with the case against Collier seemingly put to rest, some officials in Alabama — including State Auditor Jim Zeigler — believe Bentley may have misused the authority of his office to intentionally target Collier.
Zeigler said Strange “made it crystal clear” in his statement that there was never any substance to Bentley’s allegations, which Zeigler compared to filing a “false police report.” He also said the conclusion of the AG’s investigation adds more credence to the ongoing efforts to remove Bentley from office.
“I have decided to ask the House Judiciary Committee to consider adding an additional count of impeachment — giving a false report to law enforcement,” Zeigler told Lagniappe last week. “That’s an impeachable crime as corruption, and I think it’s an appropriate grounds for them to consider in light of the attorney general and the grand jury’s investigations.”
The House Judiciary Committee has been in the process investigating whether the Bentley’s involvement with Mason provides any grounds for impeachment. That process was initiated in April with a resolution from Rep. Ed Henry (R-Cullman) supported by a bipartisan group of 22 House members at the time.
There’s no word on whether the Judiciary Committee might consider Zeigler’s idea. Lagniappe has been unable to reach Henry for comment, though he recently told statewide media outlets that the findings of Strange’s office show “Bentley has not been truthful.”
What’s more, due to the context of Collier’s termination, Zeigler suggested Bentley’s conduct might be criminal because of its ties to the investigation of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.
In February, before Collier was terminated, Bentley had placed him on a medical leave of absence. However, Bentley later confirmed Collier had been placed on leave for disobeying a direct order and submitting an affidavit denying an ALEA investigation claim that Assistant Attorney General Matt Hart had leaked information about the Hubbard case to the press.
Hart successfully prosecuted the state’s case against Hubbard, who was convicted of 12 felony ethics charges and sentenced to four years in prison in July. However, because the case was still active at the time, Zeigler believes Bentley getting directly involved in the attorney general’s investigation may have been illegal in and of itself.
“The purpose of all this activity in the governor’s office was to prevent Spencer Collier from cooperating with an attorney general’s investigation of Speaker Mike Hubbard,” Zeigler said. “Imposing on a law enforcement investigation is a serious matter. It’s an obstruction of justice.”
Though there’s still much to be sorted out, if the House Judiciary Committee were to make a recommendation to the full House, it’s the House that would vote on whether to impeach Bentley. The Senate would then hold a trial, but a statewide amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot may make it more difficult to get votes necessary for the Senate to convict Bentley.
As written, Amendment Six would require a vote from two-thirds of Alabama senators in order to impeach any of the state’s constitutional officers.
Currently, there is no language in the constitution setting the number of votes needed to remove a public official from office.