By Brian Lyman
After more than nine hours of testimony and deliberations Wednesday -- and over a year after the filing of the first complaint -- the Alabama Ethics Commission found "probable cause" that Gov. Robert Bentley violated the state's ethics and campaign finance laws.
The commission referred the charges to Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey. If indicted and convicted, Bentley could face up to 20 years in prison for each violation and a fine of up to $20,000 on each charge.
Bill Athanas, an attorney for the governor, called the vote disappointing, but said Bentley planned to fight.
"There is not a basis to find the governor violated any law, much less the ethics act or the campaign finance act," Athanas said after the decision Wednesday. "The battle goes on."
The decision adds to Bentley's legal ordeal over allegations about his personal and professional relationship with former staffer Rebekah Caldwell Mason, charges that could lead to his removal from office. The House Judiciary Committee could begin impeachment hearings against Bentley next week, and the committee's special counsel should file an investigative report on the governor by Friday. The Alabama attorney general's office is also investigating Bentley, though it's not clear if that probe relates to the Mason charges or another matter.
Bentley left the RSA Union building, where the hearing was taking place, early Wednesday evening. Athanas declined to say if he testified before the commission.
Reporters also saw potential witnesses in the building, including former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, who made the allegations against Bentley last year. Collier's charges formed the basis of a complaint State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed with the commission last year, though others followed.
"I have mixed emotions," said Zeigler, who was on a witness list but did not testify Wednesday. "Pleased that the governor is finally going to face accountability, but sad for the state of Alabama that we've had to go through this for the past year-and-a-half."
Under state law, the Alabama Ethics Commission acts as a grand jury when a public official faces accusations of breaking the state's ethics law. The commission cannot press charges but can find probable cause and refer cases to the Alabama attorney general or a district attorney -- usually the one in Montgomery County -- for prosecution. Testimony and deliberations take place in private, but votes are public.
Commissioners approved charges that Bentley improperly used public resources "to further his personal interest;" a charge that he improperly used campaign money to pay Mason's legal bills; accepted a campaign contribution outside the established time limits for doing so, and made a loan to his campaign outside those time limits.
The commission approved the vote on a series of 3-1 and 4-0 votes. Commissioner Butch Ellis abstained from the votes.
Athanas said he would seek a meeting with Bailey as soon as possible.
"It's a finding of probable cause, which is one of the lowest legal standards we apply in these cases," he said. "We certainly disagree there was evidence to support a probable cause finding. We definitely disagree there was enough evidence to support a finding beyond a cause of reasonable doubt."
Bailey said in a statement Wednesday he had not yet received the commission's findings.
"Once received, I will review and make a decision on how to proceed," he said.
The vote could buttress other investigations based on Collier's charges. After Bentley fired Collier in March 2016, accusing Collier of mismanagement and "possible misuse of state funds," Collier hit back with accusations that Bentley, whose wife divorced him in 2015 after 50 years of marriage, had an affair with Mason, his senior political adviser; used state resources to pursue it and tried to prevent Collier from signing an affidavit in the criminal investigation of then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.
Audio of Bentley making suggestive comments later surfaced. Bentley acknowledged making inappropriate remarks to Mason, but both deny having a sexual affair or misuse of state funds.
How the allegations of sexual impropriety affected the commission's decision is unknown. Before going into executive session, commission member Stewart Tankersley moved to include sex in a list of "things of value" that, if exchanged between politicians, lobbyists or those who employ them, violate the state ethics law. The motion failed. Commission member Charles Price, a retired Montgomery County Circuit Judge, said the Legislature had to make those determinations.
Collier's allegations formed the basis of the impeachment drive against Bentley in the House. But the initial ethics complaint came from an unexpected source.
A few days after the allegations and denials flew, Zeigler sent what he termed a "report" summarizing Collier's accusations against the governor to the commission. The auditor compiled four counts against Bentley, including Mason's quasi-public role; Bentley using state property and resources to pursue an affair with Mason; Mason failing to register as a lobbyist despite receiving payments from an outside entity and Bentley and Mason trying to prevent Collier from signing an affidavit in the criminal investigation of then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.
The campaign finance charges appeared to come from a complaint by Stacy Lee George, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and corrections officer. The legal payments to Mason -- totaling $8,912 -- did not become public record until the governor's 2016 campaign finance report was filed earlier this year. Athanas at the time said changes to the state's campaign finance law allowed those payments.
George, who the commission sequestered like Zeigler as a possible witness, praised the committee's decision Wednesday night, and called for Bentley's impeachment by the Alabama House of Representatives.
"The state house members, 105 of them up over there, they have to put up or shut up on Friday," he said, referring to the expected investigative report in the House Judiciary Committee.
Zeigler's filing last did nothing to help his Hulk Hogan-Rowdy Piper relationship with Bentley. Zeigler had already clashed with Bentley over BP money used to refurbish the governor's mansion on the coast. The state auditor also claimed that Bentley forced him to sit in the balcony of the Old House Chamber during the 2016 State of the State address and that he "never met" Bentley in person, a claim that was disproven in photographs shared by the governor's office.
Zeigler later ordered Bentley to testify to him about the allegations that he misused state resources. Bentley ignored the order from the auditor, who has no powers of enforcement.
The commission took up other matters besides Bentley behind closed doors, but the doors to the chamber on the ninth floor of the RSA Union building remained closed from 9:45 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Wednesday. Law enforcement limited media access throughout the building during the day. At one point, officials parked SUVs outside a loading dock in an apparent attempt to shield witnesses using an adjacent door from cameras.
In a statement released by the Alabama Ethics Commission Wednesday evening, officials said investigators interviewed at least 45 witnesses in the investigation and analyzed 33,000 documents.
"The staff of the Commission has worked tirelessly and thoroughly to investigate every complaint that we received," the statement said. "The evidence was reviewed and tested multiple times by career lawyers."
The statement did not comment on the evidence gathered. Athanas -- who declined to discuss what if any defense took place behind closed doors -- said the governor maintained his innocence, and called Wednesday's vote a minor setback.
"I would always say this is a fair process," he said. "I do not question the integrity of the people who sit on that commission. They worked hard, they came to a result we disagree with, but we respect the effort they put into it."
(c)2017 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)