Anyone who has doubts about the importance of journalists in 2016 need be acquainted only with the reporting team at AL.com, the largest statewide news organization in Alabama. The group's reporters cracked open a scandal involving their governor's alleged infidelity last week and have been covering the unpredictable fallout aggressively ever since.
This scandal didn't come to them overnight; they've been hearing rumors of an affair between Gov. Robert Bentley (R) and his top political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, for months. The story finally broke open on March 22 when a fired top law enforcement official went on the record to AL.com's John Archibald about the alleged affair and offered proof. Faced with damning evidence of a taped phone conversation to a woman named Rebekah, Bentley has denied he had an affair, but few in a state accustomed to scandal believe him.
Alabama lawmakers, led by Republicans, are looking at ways to impeach him or set up a recall. An informal online AL.com poll found that 90 percent of about 30,000 respondents said Bentley should resign. Mason resigned Wednesday.
The story stretches far beyond sex, though. It's also connected to an ethics trial of the House speaker and a shadowy nonprofit that paid Mason's communications firm about $320,000 at the time of her resignation. As AL.com reporter Leada Gore said: "It's got every part of a scandal you could want."
There are a lot of moving parts, so The Fix caught up with Gore to get the latest on the scandal and her thoughts on how this is going to play out. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: First of all, great job.
GORE: Thank you. A lot of it has been old-fashioned, on-the-ground sources calling you, and talking to sources. We're digitally driven, but this has been a true, old-fashioned reporting process.
The issue with this whole story has been that nothing has been out in the open. Until they got rid of the director of our state police, that was the first on-the-record indication of things we had been dealing with for the last six months.
THE FIX: Speaking of that, what's it like to report on a story that requires you to sift through allegations and unsubstantiated claims and people's motives?
GORE: It was very difficult. When the governor's wife filed for divorce last August after 50 years of marriage, it came completely out of the blue -- for not just us, but for him. And so we're automatically hit with his alleged mistress's name, we're hit with everything. So we kept having to go back to what we could prove, and what we could prove was his wife filed for divorce.
We had very good sources telling us that whether there was an affair or not, she believed that something was going on. We had sources who were unimpeachable saying she almost didn't show up for the  inauguration of her husband over this. So we had to rule out some of the rumors, but it got to the point that they were so loud you couldn't ignore them.
But we consistently tried to go back to: What can we prove? What can we show? And for me personally, and for many of us, what that became was the fact that the governor's chief adviser, whether he was having an improper relationship with her or not, was not a paid state employee. The people just didn't know who she was paid by.
THE FIX: There are so many moving parts in this ongoing scandal. Can you lay out for us what we know and what we don't?
GORE: What we know right now is the governor's wife filed for divorce. He claims it's a private matter. They very quickly quietly settled the divorce. Before this divorce happened -- no wait, I'm going to back [up] even further and make this even more complicated for you.
THE FIX: It is complicated.
GORE: You really need a flowchart.
Anyway, the speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard (R), is indicted on corruption charges. That has dragged on forever. So the governor has this old-time friend who was a legislator with him who he puts in charge of our state law enforcement agency. They get crossways -- which is an Alabama term you can use -- over the handling of an affidavit they are seeking related to the speaker's trial. The top cop says, 'I'm going to give this affidavit because I'm not going to lie to the grand jury about some of the things going on.' The governor supposedly told him not to. When Spencer Collier [the top cop] gave that affidavit, the governor fired him.
Then Spencer Collier became the first person willing to go on the record to say, 'Yes, there was an affair.' That's what happened last week that broke it all open.
THE FIX: So now we get into the affair allegations?
GORE: Not yet. We reported in September about the governor, who was paying his chief adviser, Mason, through a 501(c)(4) [nonprofit] he set up with his campaign funds. At the time, everybody was like, 'Yeah, that's interesting, but not that great of a story.' After this happened, it became a bigger story, because she's now implicated in a personal relationship with the governor.
THE FIX: Okay, then Collier [the state's now-fired top cop] "proved" there was an affair. What happened next?
GORE: So Collier makes the claim, then the governor comes out that afternoon and admits that he made inappropriate comments but he doesn't elaborate on the timing or what exactly those comments were.
That afternoon, we received an audiotape from a member of Bentley's family that was a recorded phone conversation at the governor's beach house that was recorded apparently by his wife's cellphone of him making comments to his friend. And those comments were very very graphic and very, very specific. While the governor said there was not a physical relationship -- he says there was no sex involved -- it became clear there was kissing, touching.
Since that time, it has gone everywhere. Our state auditor has filed an ethics investigation, which in Alabama is extremely serious. There's also a state complaint saying he misused funds.
Mason has resigned her post. Her husband, who is a state employee -- of all things the director of the state faith-based initiative office -- is still there.
And then you get into all this crazy stuff. They all went to church together in Tuscaloosa. They've been asked to leave; he's no longer a deacon. We reported today her husband operated a separate communications company that was not on her ethics forms that received payments from the University of Alabama. And to make it even more of a tangled web, the chairman of the 501(c)(4) that the governor set up is the legal adviser to the board of trustees to the University of Alabama.
THE FIX: That's a lot of people tied up in some way to this.
GORE: It's the most convoluted, crazy mess you've ever heard. But the question everyone wants to know is: At what point is the tipping point for the governor to resign?
We're two years from picking his successor, so people are also keeping an eye on 'Where does this leave us? Do we want to go ahead and line somebody up now to take over for him, and what's their situation? Are we any better off with anybody else?'
THE FIX: Bentley says he's not going to resign. There's currently no way to force him out, though lawmakers are considering ways, whether that's impeachment or a recall. What's the likelihood of that happening?
GORE: The chances of getting either one of those through is going to be very, very difficult. They can't agree on where to go to lunch, and that's with a Republican super-majority in both houses. On top of all this, the speaker of the House's trial will start soon, and he's, what, fourth in line for command? It's almost like, how deep do we have to go to get someone who's not tainted?
THE FIX: In resigning, is there a sense Mason is taking the fall for the governor?
GORE: I don't think so. She is very much resented in Montgomery; the whole accusation that she's the 'de facto governor' was in play big-time. They see her a very willing, wily, complicit person in this.
THE FIX: But Bentley could be in trouble for using state funds to carry out this relationship with her?
GORE: Or personnel. The big question is: Did he pass the line of more failings to a criminal action? It has not been specifically proven. It has certainly been alluded to that he's used state resources and property and perhaps personnel to carry this out. [Editor's note: Bentley on Thursday said "there is nothing illegal" that happened.]
Or if there's any sort of telling somebody to lie -- not so much about the affair, but in connection with the Hubbard investigation. It may be one of those things where you get it on something else connected to trying to cover up the original problem. And there is certainly so much out there.
The ethics commission does not typically move very fast. We don't expect something to move next week; it could be months or a year. It's just, at what point does he see the handwriting on the wall?
One thing to remember about all of this is this is the most unlikely of adulterers. The man ran on 'I'm a Baptist, religious doctor who will fight the federal government.' He toed the party line and then when he was elected a second time, he frankly lost his mind. He starts throwing out tax increases -- it's almost as if somebody flipped a switch and we got a different governor.
THE FIX: Let's step back. Two of the previous five governors were convicted of crimes. (Former Republican governor Guy Hunt was convicted in 1993 for taking $200,000 from his inaugural fund for personal use, and former Democratic governor Don Siegelman is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2006 for corruption related to bribery.) The state's House speaker is on trial. Is this just yet another scandal for Alabama residents, or is this something more?
GORE: We've had politicians do all sorts of crazy things before. But I think the turnaround in him was so dramatic, and of all the governors you'd ever think would be running around on his wife, you would not have thought he would. And I think that's why this is so interesting, because frankly our speaker of the House being indicted, people obviously cared. But nobody really stopped during their lunchtime discussion to talk about it. Everybody's talking about this.
This is an embarrassment to the state. I hear that a lot -- that he's embarrassed us. And that takes a lot. We have a high tolerance.