As Impeachment Hearings Begin, So Do Resignation Rumors for Alabama Governor

by | April 10, 2017

By Brian Lyman

The gavel fell, and Alabama's government Monday went to a place it hasn't visited in 102 years.

The House Judiciary Committee Monday morning opened impeachment proceedings against Gov. Robert Bentley over actions he allegedly took in pursuing and trying to cover up an affair with senior political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason.

"I trust we will all approach this with a fair and open mind," Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, the committee chairman, said Monday morning. "We must put aside partisan bias and preconceptions and approach this task with fairness."

It is the first ever impeachment directed at a governor, and the first impeachment considered by the chamber since 1915.

Bentley, who has maintained his innocence, has denied doing anything illegal and publicly stood his ground, insisting he will not resign. But the political and legal earth continues to shift beneath his feet.

The Alabama Ethics Commission Wednesday found probable cause that Bentley violated ethics and campaign finance laws. The report proved a major blow to Bentley and what little political capital he had remaining in the Legislature. By early Friday afternoon, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia -- both of whom previously steered clear of comments on impeachment or Bentley's legal woes -- called on Bentley to resign.

Those calls came before the release of a damaging impeachment report Friday afternoon, which depicted Bentley as obsessing over tapes of conversations between himself and Mason. According to the report, Bentley used state law enforcement to try to obtain the tapes and question staffers he believed had knowledge of them. The report also depicted the governor becoming emotionally unstable over the relationships, wavering between tearful contrition and angry defiance, to the point of threatening staffers who knew or who he believed he knew about the existence of the tapes.

Jack Sharman, the special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, began his opening arguments against Bentley Monday morning, mainly outlining the history of impeachment and the Alabama Constitution's somewhat hazy description of it.

"Impeachment is the people's check against political excess," Sharman told the committee. "It is a remedy of the state as opposed to punishment for an individual as in a criminal case."

Sharman's presentation was expected to take up most of the day Monday. Bentley's legal team is expected to make its case Tuesday. The governor has a limited ability to ask questions of witnesses and mount a defense, but Bentley's attorneys insist that he should be able to confront and cross-examine witnesses before the committee. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin delayed the hearings on Friday after the governor's attorneys made that argument in court, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that ruling Saturday.

Bentley says he has broken no laws and to this point has resisted calls to step. down. Alabama Political Reporter and al.com reported Sunday and Monday that negotiations for Bentley's resignation were beginning. Yasamie August, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Monday morning the governor was not "personally involved" in resignation negotiations.

The Ethics Commission sent its findings to Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey last week. Bailey Monday referred the charges Ellen Brooks, acting as attorney general in an investigation of Bentley. In a letter referring the case to Brooks, Bailey wrote he wanted to avoid "duplication of effort or interference with your investigation."

While impeachment of a sitting governor unprecedented, the governor's ordeal was only part of a larger leadership crisis that consumed state government for more than two-and-a-half years. House Speaker Mike Hubbard last June was convicted on 12 felony ethics charges and removed from office. Last September, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended for the remainder of his term after instructing probate judges in the state to not issue same-sex marriage licenses, in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the practice.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, a member of the House Judiciary Committee recused himself from the hearing. Jones, who announced the recusal, did not give a reason why. Ball signed the articles of impeachment filed against Bentley last May, and the governor's legal team tried to get everyone on the committee who signed them to recuse themselves, including Ball; Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka and Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla. Holmes and Farley were present for the hearing Monday.

(c)2017 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)