By Brian Lyman
A north Alabama lawmaker Tuesday filed articles of impeachment against Gov. Robert Bentley over what he called "incompetency" and an inability to lead.
The political and constitutional support for removing the governor -- which the Alabama Constitution is hazy on -- remains uncertain, and the chair of the committee that will consider the move said Tuesday a separate committee would deliberate the grounds for impeachment. But the impeachment attempt represents the latest challenge for Bentley amid a scandal over his relationship with a former staffer.
The five-page resolution, sponsored by Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle on Tuesday, accuses Bentley of "willful neglect of duty," "corruption in office," "incompetency" and "offenses of moral turpitude." The resolution reflects accusations made by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier that Bentley had an affair with Rebekah Mason, who served as his political adviser until resigning last week.
Bentley has acknowledged making suggestive comments to Mason, but both he and Mason deny having an affair. The governor has also denied a Collier accusation that he used state resources to pursue the affair.
"We've never done this before," Henry said at a press conference Tuesday. "We've never tried to impeach a governor." But he added the "process begins today."
Bentley in a statement called the move "political grandstanding" meant to distract the state from pressing issues.
"There are no grounds for impeachment, and I will vigorously defend myself and my administration from this political attack," the statement said.
In a March 23 press conference, Collier said he discovered evidence of an affair between Bentley and Mason in 2014 while Bentley was married to his wife Dianne. The Bentleys divorced last fall, ending their 50-year marriage.
Audio of Bentley making suggestive comments in a phone conversation has since surfaced.
Collier accused Bentley and Mason of using state funds to pursue the affair, though he said he had no proof. Bentley acknowledged making inappropriate remarks to Mason, and said he had apologized for them. The Alabama Ethics Commission has indicated it will investigate the allegations.
Bentley fired Collier on March 22, saying an audit of ALEA raised concerns, "including possible misuse of state funds." Collier strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Questions have arisen about how Mason, who has not been on the state payroll since 2013, received compensation. Mason said she got paid by Bentley's campaign and the Alabama Council for Excellent Government (ACEGOV), a group formed to promote Bentley's agenda. Mason said last month ACEGOV paid her $15,000 in 2015. The group has not filed a 990 form and says it is a 501(c)(4) organization; those groups do not have to disclose donors.
ACEGOV gave a $2,500 donation to the Alabama Republican Party last year despite its incorporation papers saying it would not make political contributions.
Alabama's Constitution allows for impeachment of constitutional officers for a broad range of actions, not all illegal. The state's governing document allows for the removal of officers for "willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors or narcotics . . . as unfits the officer for the discharge of such duties, or for any offense involving moral turpitude."
The impeachment articles incorporate some of Collier's accusations, particularly on the allegations of an affair. But they also accuse Bentley of being deceptive in campaigning for re-election in 2014 on not raising taxes, and then pushing a $728 million tax and revenue package to shore up the General Fund last year. Henry also said the tapes of Bentley's suggestive comments undermined his credibility.
"Now that we've heard the tapes, we know what's been going in that relationship, it's hard to believe it hasn't clouded his judgment, that he hasn't used his office to cover up the affair," he said.
Collier has also alleged that Bentley and Mason tried to prevent him from submitting an affidavit in House Speaker Mike Hubbard's ethics case. That charge is not explicitly stated in the resolution of impeachment.
The Constitution is not specific about the process of impeachment. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution does not provide a margin for conviction of an impeached constitutional officer in the Senate. Resolutions usually go to Rules Committees, unless four-fifths of the House -- a maximum of 84 members, if all 105 representatives cast ballots -- votes to take it up out of order. Henry said Tuesday he believed he had the votes to pass the resolution, but not to bring it up out of order.
It may not appear on the floor for some time. Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, said Tuesday the House would set up an investigatory committee "to vet the articles of impeachment."
"Once the commission is in place and we have heard the report, we will address the other resolution (of impeachment)," McCutcheon said. He did not know if the commission would complete its work before the end of the legislative session next month.
Leadership has remained silent on Bentley's troubles. House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said in a brief statement Tuesday the Legislature would follow the impeachment process "with great care and deliberation."
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, declined comment on the situation Tuesday
"Those issues in the House, wherever they go, they go," he said. "But we're focused on doing the people's business here, and we'll continue to do that."
Bentley's relationship with the Legislature in his time in office has been at best uneasy and at worst confrontational. The governor's attempts in 2012 to force changes in the state's controversial immigration law during a special session fell flat after he was unable to find a sponsor for his proposal in his own party. Bentley later signed amendments made by the Legislature. In 2014, he shocked legislators by demanding a pay raise for teachers after working out an agreement to fund the education insurance program. The governor lost the attempt to get the increase.
The governor's $728 million tax and revenue package, which Henry criticized Tuesday aimed to bring stability to the long-troubled General Fund budget. The move triggered a six-month battle with legislators; the House leadership proposed a smaller package, while the Senate resisted most revenue measures. In the end, a General Fund with about $166 million in new revenues got approved.
Hubbard faces a scheduled trial next month on ethics charges. Hubbard maintains his innocence. Hubbard was re-elected as speaker by Democrats and Republicans in January, 2015 despite the indictment. Henry called it a separate issue, saying Hubbard's case was already underway.
"It is in the court system," he said. "It is in play. This is a completely separate issue."
If Bentley were impeached, Lt. Gov Kay Ivey would serve as acting governor during his Senate trial. An acquittal would mean the governor could resume his duties. Ivey also declined comment, saying her office created a transition plan "early on" as part of her broader duties as lieutenant governor. But she said any succession was "hypothetical."
"Nothing's happened, and we're still trying to tend to the business of the state of Alabama," she said.
(c)2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)