By Josh Moon
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, responding to allegations from the former head of the state's law enforcement agency, said Wednesday afternoon that he made inappropriate remarks to a senior female staffer but denied participating in a "physical, sexual relationship."
Earlier in the day, Spencer Collier, formerly head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) until he was fired this week by Bentley, alleged that he and another ALEA official had uncovered explicit text messages between Bentley and political advisor Rebekah Caldwell Mason. He said Bentley admitted the affair and asked for help ending it, but later told Collier that he couldn't stop seeing Mason.
At his press conference, Bentley called most of Collier's claims false, saying instead that he had made a mistake in judgment "over two years ago" and never had a physical relationship with Mason.
"I made a mistake," Bentley said. "I have apologized many times to my family. I have apologized to the family of Mrs. Mason. I would now like to apologize to the people of Alabama. I ask them to forgive me."
Following the press conference, Mason released a statement in which she blamed most of the allegations on sexism.
"There is no way that man (Collier) would have said what he did today about another man," Mason's statement began. "He only said what he said about my professional abilities because I am a woman. His comments were clear, demonstrated gender bias. Since 2010, I have proudly served as (Bentley's) campaign press secretary, communications director advisor, campaign communications director and now senior political advisor. Unfortunately, there are still people who are set on hindering the ability of women to work in the political arena. I am proud of what I have accomplished in my professional career."
The affair allegations have not just come from Collier, however. Yellowhammer News, a political blog, posted a story about it quoting a recording purported to be between Bentley and Mason. The recording itself was available online for a brief period.
The recording, according to Yellowhammer, reportedly originated from Diane Bentley, Robert Bentley's ex-wife, who abruptly divorced the governor last year. Diane Bentley allegedly made the tape while she and the governor were at their beach house.
During Wednesday's press conference, a reporter referenced the tapes and asked Bentley how he could claim a non-physical relationship with Mason when he is clearly heard on the tapes saying to Mason that he "likes to walk up behind her and grab her breasts."
"It wasn't a sexual relationship," Bentley said, quickly.
The governor also denied misusing state funds or resources to facilitate the affair or to hide it, noting that he went to great lengths to ensure that he didn't use the state airplane inappropriately.
Most of Bentley's press conference was in direct response to allegations laid out earlier by Collier. Collier, who was fired Tuesday, went into great detail describing uncovering Bentley's affair with Mason and his conversations with the governor about it.
Collier said he learned of Bentley's affair by accident in August 2014, after the governor left his personal cell phone behind at an event. A text message on the screen was from Mason and it was sexual in nature, he said.
A short time later, a member of Bentley's security staff brought Collier a tape recording that had been provided by a member of Bentley's family, Collier said. On it, he said he heard Bentley and Mason carrying on a conversation that was sexual in nature.
"Body parts were discussed," Collier said. "It was very obvious what it was, what was taking place."
Collier said he dismissed Bentley's normal security team and he and another senior member escorted the governor to an event in Greenville. During the trip, Collier said he confronted Bentley about the affair.
"He hung his head, he didn't deny it," Collier said. "He asked me how to get out of it."
Collier said he informed Bentley during that trip that an affair with Mason could easily violate the law should he provide her state resources, or even use state resources to carry out the affair or cover it up.
Bentley assured him that he was not misusing state funds, so Collier said he let it go. Even after Bentley allegedly called Collier the following day and said he couldn't break off the affair, Collier said he was confident at that time that the governor was not misusing state funds.
However, that perception changed, Collier said. During conversations with other state workers, particularly those who handled Bentley's travel arrangements, Collier said he started to believe that Bentley has misappropriated state resources, although he admitted to having no proof.
Collier said Bentley has admitted to him within the last month that the affair is ongoing with Mason.
"He has told me that he is madly in love with Mason, but he's a man of honor and will not ask her to divorce her husband," Collier said.
Collier was originally placed on medical leave by Bentley a month ago, following an odd series of events related to the ongoing prosecution of Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard. An assistant attorney general for the state had requested an affidavit from Collier on a specific matter, but Bentley instructed Collier to remain out of the case and not submit the affidavit.
Collier said he had no choice as a law enforcement officer to cooperate.
"Bentley and (Mason) were furious with me," Collier said.
On Tuesday, Bentley relieved Collier of his duties and at the same time alleged that an investigation at ALEA had turned up misused funds. Collier vehemently denied that allegation.
"You can turn ALEA upside down and there won't be missing funds there," Collier said. "I'll be happy to cooperate with any investigation into that."
(c)2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)