Alabama lawmakers who have been exploring ways to impeach the state's embattled governor were divided on moving forward with the investigation after a meeting Tuesday.
In a 6-6 vote, House Judiciary Committee members were split on whether to allow their legal counsel to continue investigating Gov. Robert Bentley (R) to find out if he conducted an affair using state resources. Half of the committee voted to hold off, citing an ongoing probe by the state attorney general's office.
Because of the split vote, there remained some confusion after the meeting — even among some committee members — over what would happen next.
For nearly a year, Bentley, 74, has fended off calls from his Republican allies and his opponents to resign after a recording of him having a sexually explicit conversation with his then-chief adviser emerged in March 2016.
Allegations of an affair between Bentley and one of his top aides, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, had already been swirling for months, according to local reporters. The rumors reached a peak after the governor's wife of 50 years abruptly filed for divorce in August 2015. Still, there was no proof Bentley had done anything inappropriate, and the governor declared rumors of an affair to be “ridiculous.”
The tipping point came last March when Bentley fired his former friend Spencer Collier as secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Collier then went to local media to state, on the record, that Bentley was in fact having an affair with his top aide — and that he could prove it.
Then came a bombshell audio recording, allegedly taped by Bentley's family and then published by AL.com shortly after Collier was fired. In the recording, the governor can be heard having a sexually explicit conversation with a woman named “Rebekah,” professing his love for the woman and describing putting his hands on her breasts.
“You know, I just, I worry about sometimes I love so you much,” the governor could be heard saying on the recording. “I worry about loving you so much.”
Bentley could also be heard saying: “Baby, let me know what I am going to do when I start locking the door. If we are going to do what we did the other day, we are going to have to start locking the door.”
Mason resigned from her position immediately after news of the recordings broke.
In the hours that followed the tape's release, Bentley “twisted himself into a pretzel to admit everything but the affair,” The Washington Post reported then. Yes, Bentley had said sexually explicit things to a staffer, the governor admitted. But the relationship was never physical, he said.
“At times in the past, have I said things that I should not have said?” he told reporters last March. “Absolutely. That’s what I’m saying today.”
When a reporter asked if the governor was in love with the adviser he’s rumored to have had an affair with, Bentley said: “I love many members of my staff, in fact, all the members of my staff. Do I love some more than others, absolutely.”
Within a month, Alabama lawmakers had taken the first steps to try to impeach Bentley.
“We're looking at this governor who has essentially betrayed the trust of the people of Alabama,” state Rep. Ed Henry (R) told NBC News. “This is about the actions and lies that have caused us some doubts about his leadership.”
Henry added: “If he truly loves the people of this state, he will step down.”
Bentley has continued to deny having a “sexual relationship” with Mason and maintained that he will not resign. He repeatedly has insisted none of his conduct would be grounds for impeachment.
There are no grounds for impeachment, & I will vigorously defend myself & administration from this political attack. https://t.co/6yUH6APOeB
— Gov. Robert Bentley (@GovernorBentley) April 5, 2016
Even Republican lawmakers have been calling for Bentley to resign. Last April, the House Judiciary Committee launched an impeachment investigation of the governor but put it on hold in November at the request of then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who said his office was in the process of completing “related work.”
“I respectfully request that the Committee cease active interviews and investigation until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed,” Strange wrote then, according to AL.com.
In February, Bentley appointed Strange to fill the seat in the U.S. Senate vacated by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general. The timing of the appointment raised eyebrows among Alabama lawmakers; at least one said the arrangement “sure smells of quid pro quo.”
Current Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has since confirmed that his office is investigating Bentley. However, Marshall recused himself, naming former Montgomery County district attorney Ellen Brooks to oversee it instead, AL.com reported.
In February, Brooks wrote a letter to the House Judiciary Committee asking it to continue holding off on its investigation because not doing so could create a “double jeopardy” situation later. In other words, if the governor were to be impeached, it is possible that would prevent the attorney general's office from pursuing criminal charges against Bentley.
Here is acting Asst. AG Ellen Brooks' letter to the impeachment committee. pic.twitter.com/tbzp7i0S41
— Kyle Whitmire (@WarOnDumb) March 7, 2017
On Tuesday, House Judiciary Committee members debated for nearly two hours whether they should allow their legal counsel to resume investigating Bentley. Some lawmakers expressed frustration and said they were feeling pressured by their constituents to move on impeaching the governor, AL.com reported.
Committee member Rep. Marcel Black (D) told The Post that a mix of Democrats and Republicans voted on both sides.
“There were some members who had some very definite opinions that it should be going forward in spite of any other investigation,” Black said. “And [those members] … didn't buy into the argument that that case would be double jeopardy with us going forward because we're more of a charging body rather than a trying body.”
In the end, the motion to hold off on the investigation failed on the tie vote. Because of that, Black said it was not immediately clear what exactly would take place next.
“I think what will happen, subject to the chairman's discretion … [is] legal counsel will restart his work,” Black said. “I think that was really the sense of the committee, that he continue his work and we go forward with our part of the puzzle in the impeachment issue, notwithstanding the fact that there's perhaps a criminal investigation going on.”
Calls to the offices of the judiciary committee's chair and vice chair, state Reps. Mike Jones (R) and Jim Hill (R), were referred back to a House of Representatives spokesman, who did not return messages Tuesday. Calls and emails to Jack Sharman, the committee's legal counsel, were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Jones has said that, as soon as the state attorney general's office clears it to proceed, he anticipates the investigation will wrap up before the end of the current legislative session in late May, according to AL.com.
Great time catching up with Attorney General Sessions. Proud of Alabama's role during this remarkable time in our nation's history. pic.twitter.com/244VHmmsQ9
— Gov. Robert Bentley (@GovernorBentley) February 26, 2017
Under the Alabama Constitution, if the House does vote to send Bentley's impeachment charges to the Senate for a trial, the governor would have to immediately step down from office. The lieutenant governor would take his place throughout the Senate trial, and Bentley would then only be allowed to return to office if he is acquitted by the Senate.
Because of those rules, an impeachment would essentially “immediately throw out the votes of Alabama citizens,” said Ross Garber, an attorney representing the governor's office, in a statement Tuesday.
“This is not something that can be done without due process and very substantial evidence of serious wrongdoing,” Garber said. “And certainly, in advance of any decision by the Judiciary Committee, the Governor is entitled to cross examine witnesses and present evidence on his own behalf.”
Before the scandal, Bentley was not known for generating salacious headlines. He is in the middle of his second four-year term as governor. In his 2014 reelection race, Bentley won the largest percentage of the vote (63 percent) of any modern-day Republican governor in Alabama. He also was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, a reputation he leaned on heavily. The church pastor released a statement last March saying Bentley and Mason no longer were members.
“One thing he had going for him after he was elected is at least people thought he was a man of integrity,” Richard Fording, the chair of the University of Alabama's political science department, told The Post last March. “That is all gone now.”