The shadow of a sex scandal that has trailed Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for the past year may have finally caught up to him.
The embattled governor faces potential prosecution ― and possibly impeachment ― after the state’s Ethics Commission announced late Wednesday that it had found probable cause to believe Bentley broke at least one state ethics law and three campaign laws.
Some of the violations may have occurred as Bentley, 74, allegedly carried out and covered up an affair with his former top political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, 45. Bentley is accused, among other things, of using state resources for personal matters and for using campaign cash to pay for Mason’s legal fees.
Bentley has denied any wrongdoing. When reached for comment, his office referred to remarks his attorney, William Athanas, had made to reporters following the commission’s vote.
“It’s important to remember this is simply a finding of probable cause, not a finding of a violation,” Athanas said. “There is not a basis to find the governor violated any law.”
The commission’s investigation is now referred to the Montgomery County district attorney, who will decide whether to prosecute Bentley. In the meantime, the governor, who has roughly 20 months left on his final term in office, faces sinking approval ratings and calls for his resignation.
The Ethics Commission’s ruling may be the last straw for Bentely’s political career, said Steve Flowers, a former Alabama state legislator and political analyst who literally wrote the book on scandalous governors in the state.
“It’s really damaging. It’s a pivotal thing,” Flowers said of the ruling.
“Before, he broke people’s trust and lost all credibility and popularity. But now he’s broken the law,” Flowers said. “He’s a dead man walking, politically.”
Bentley swept into office in 2011 on a conservative platform of job creation, family values and government transparency. He even vowed not to draw a paycheck until Alabama’s unemployment rate went below 5 percent.
“He was a real Horatio Alger story,” Flowers said of Bentley’s rags-to-riches story. Bentley’s move from humble beginnings to a lucrative dermatology practice made him especially popular with older, conservative voters in rural areas who saw him as familiar and trustworthy.
But the rumored sex scandal, which came to light near the start of Bentley’s second term, has evaporated much of his goodwill with voters.
“If you ride in on a white horse and wear a white hat and get mud on it, they don’t forgive you,” Flowers said. “He won because he came across as a good ol’ boy, a grandfather-looking guy.”
As early as 2014, political insiders in Montgomery were raising their eyebrows at what some considered to be Mason’s outsized influence on Bentley. Chatter about the relationship and resentment over Mason’s power circulated around the capital and earned Mason the nickname of “de facto governor.”
“[Mason] was running his life,” Flowers said in reference to a meeting he’d had with Bentley about two years ago. “And she ran the whole meeting with me.”
He’s a dead man walking, politically. Political Analyst Steve Flowers on Gov. Robert Bentley
Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, said last year that the governor relied on Mason’s opinion above all others.
“At the end of 2014, Governor Bentley made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that from that point forward, anyone who questioned Rebekah’s influence would be fired,” Collier said at the time.
Scrutiny escalated further when Bentley’s wife of 50 years filed for divorce in 2015, citing “a complete incompatibility of temperament.”
Then in March 2016, Collier was fired from his job leading the ALEA after holding a press conference in which he alleged that he had seen text messages between Bentley and Mason that were “sexual in nature” and said the governor was interfering in ALEA investigations.
After the below recording of Bentley making sexually explicit comments to a woman identified as “Rebekah” surfaced, Bentley admitted that he had “made mistakes.” Still, he denied having a sexual relationship with Mason. The recording is believed to have been made by his family in an effort to determine if he was having an affair, AL.com reported.
Mason resigned a week later. Her husband, Joe, remained on the governor’s staff as recently as last year, making a reported $91,000 a year to lead the vaguely defined Office of Faith-Based and Volunteer Service.
The state’s legal and constitutional roadmap isn’t very clear about what would happen after a trial if Bentley is prosecuted ― Alabama has never successfully impeached a sitting governor.
If the state House voted in favor of impeachment, Bentley would face a trial in the state Senate.
Bentley’s office has dismissed the claims against him as a “political attack.” But it’s unclear who stands to benefit from a potential impeachment when the governor is already ineligible for a third term and the state’s Republican Party holds a comfortable majority in the state House.
Many lawmakers, including some from Bentley’s own party, are urging the governor to step aside in the interest of limiting distractions ― and embarrassment ― for the state.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R) said Thursday during a legislative session that Alabama was “stagnant” and already faced a host of critical issues, from education to prison reform.
“I would only ask that I hope at the end of the day the governor would do what’s best for the state of Alabama,” Marsh said. “If these things are pressing, and going to put the state under a cloud, if that’s where we’re headed, I hope the governor does what’s best for the state and seriously considers stepping down.”
Bentley again repeated his refusal to step down, even as his reputation as “The Luv Gov” spreads nationally.
“It’s a heck of a story,” Flowers said, likening the saga to a soap opera. “In the South, our politicians are our entertainers.”