Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2016 12:15 am | Updated: 4:43 am, Sun Mar 27, 2016.
MONTGOMERY — If Gov. Robert Bentley’s admission he said inappropriate, sexual things to his married top adviser is the end of the story, he can limp along for 2½ more years as governor, political experts said.
But he has lost power and trust. The winners in this situation could be Bentley’s supermajority Republican colleagues in the Statehouse, now less likely to listen to him.
The losers are those counting on Bentley to get done the things he wanted, like finding more money for Medicaid, upon which at least one in five Alabamians rely for health care.
“I don’t know what spectrum or faction of the political environment he goes to now for political support,” Athens State University political science professor Jess Brown said. “He was hurting with his base on the tax situation. … I don’t know where he goes from here for support.
“He is going to be for now — and maybe the rest of his term — politically radioactive.”
Bentley, 73, apologized Wednesday to Alabamians for remarks he made to Rebekah Mason, his 44-year-old adviser. He admitted to saying inappropriate things to her over a period of time, but wouldn’t specify the time frame. He repeatedly said he never had a physical relationship with Mason, despite an audio recording where he can be heard on the phone telling a woman that he loved to walk up behind her and touch her breasts.
The admission came hours after his former state Law Enforcement Agency leader, Spencer Collier, accused Bentley of having an affair with Mason. Collier said in a news conference he became aware of the sexual relationship between Bentley and Mason and confronted the governor about it in August 2014.
Bentley fired Collier on Tuesday, amid allegations of a misuse of funds within the agency.
Bentley, whose wife of 50 years divorced him last summer, said Wednesday he’d previously apologized to his family for remarks he said were made about two years ago and that he’s been totally honest with the people of Alabama.
Collier said the audio recording he heard came from the Bentley family.
“If Robert Bentley would deceive his wife of 50 years, how can he remain credible with us on prisons, Medicaid, taxes and the budgets and so forth?” Brown said.
The governor last year angered some supporters by pitching a $541 million tax increase plan after previously pledging not to raise taxes.
Bentley’s admission may not have been as shocking to Alabamians as it would be in other states.
They are used to their governors coming with a side of scandal, said Shannon Bridgmon, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. She’s an Alabama native who studies Southern politics.
Don Siegelman, who served from 1999 until 2003, is in prison for bribery and obstruction of justice charges.
Guy Hunt held the office from 1987-93, when he was forced out of office after being convicted of a felony ethics violation.
Bentley was the “accidental governor,” Bridgmon said, the retired dermatologist who ran on family values and cutting taxes.
“Now, you go, ‘Oh well, another Alabama governor has ethical problems and a possible legal issue,’ ” she said.
Denying an affair
Bentley’s denial of a sexual relationship with Mason drew comparisons to former President Bill Clinton’s 1998, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Brown pointed out a key difference in the scenarios.
“No claim was ever made that Monica Lewinsky had any influence over the president’s office,” Brown said. “In that sense, this is worse than Monica Lewinsky.”
Collier, a longtime friend of Bentley, said Mason holds incredible influence over Bentley and his administration, even making state budget decisions. He called her an un-elected de facto governor.
Mason fired back that Collier wouldn’t say such things if she were a man and called his accusations gender bias.
Brown noted if Bentley were accused of talking to a man the way he talked to Mason, things would likely be a lot worse for him.
Collier also said Bentley told him to give false information to the Attorney General’s Office about an investigation ALEA had done on possible improper conduct within the AG’s office.
“Gov. Bentley instructed me to tell Matt Hart at the Attorney General’s Office that the ALEA investigation was still ongoing and not to do the affidavit (saying it was complete),” Collier said. “That was untrue. The investigation was done.”
Bentley’s office said that allegation is false.
Hart is leading the state’s prosecution of Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, who faces trial next month on 23 counts of felony ethics violations.
Attorney General Luther Strange last week said his office takes seriously the accusations involving potential criminal misconduct. His office wouldn’t comment on whether it is investigating allegations of wrongdoings in Bentley’s office or misspending within ALEA.
Reaction from lawmakers has been mixed, and Brown said he wonders if legislative leaders wouldn’t be happy to see him stay put in the governor’s office.
“He was weakened on taxes, and now you’ve got him on a personal ethics issue,” Brown said. “They might want to leave him there — he’s politically irrelevant. He’ll just be a name and title on a door.”
In Bentley’s February State of the State speech, he laid out ambitious plans for his remaining three years in office: community college scholarships for low-income students; expanded broadband Internet access around the state; new prisons; more money in pre-K education, and more doctors and other health care workers in rural areas.
Bridgmon said some of those plans could suffer now, if he has to rely on the Legislature to attach money to projects.
Lawmakers in the Senate could vote on Bentley’s $800 million bond proposal to build four prisons when they return from spring break April 5.
Those hoping Bentley could use his office to get more money for Medicaid may be disappointed.
“This is a kick in the gut to (Medicaid supporters), this is a kick in the gut to child advocates in the state,” Bridgmon said. “There’s no chance for them unless they can lobby individual legislators, and this late in the session. I don’t see that happening.
“What’s sad is those Alabamians are going to be the biggest loser in all of this. They’re going to pay the price.”
Bentley said Thursday he’d veto the lawmaker-approved fiscal 2017 $1.8 billion General Fund budget. Response from his Republican colleagues in the Statehouse can be summed up as a collective, “So what?”
They’ll override his veto with a simple majority, and if Bentley calls them into a special session, they’ll likely pass the same budget again.
“(Bentley) in this position is the best thing that’s happened to the Legislature all year,” Bridgmon said. “Right now, sad to say, Alabamians are more disgusted with their governor than the Legislature. For the Legislature, that’s a win.”
There also may be an issue in this that lawmakers can’t ignore, Brown said. At least part of Mason’s salary comes from a nonprofit whose donors don’t have to be disclosed.
According to records, Mason received about $76,000 in calendar 2015 from Bentley’s campaign fund.
Under state law, politicians can spend campaign money on office expenses. It appears she earned about $5,000 a month for consulting and was reimbursed separately for travel and lodging expenses, according to online records.
Multiple media organizations reported Mason has been paid, at least in part, “dark money” through a 501©(4) set up last year to advocate Bentley’s policies. Because it’s a nonprofit, the Alabama Council for Excellent Government doesn’t have to disclose its financial supporters.
Mason on Friday said her company received $15,000 from the group in 2015.
When the nonprofit was created last year, the council’s chairman of the board, Cooper Shattuck — Bentley’s former legal adviser — said because it was privately funded, it could do more things the governor wanted to do without spending state resources.
Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said Friday she couldn’t say whether Mason also was paid through the council because she didn’t know anything about that organization. She referred questions to Shattuck and Mason.
Shattuck couldn’t be reached Friday via email or at his office at the University of Alabama, where he’s general counsel.
Brown said the Republicans, who ran on transparency and ethics in 2010, need to be asking about Mason’s pay.
“It’s dark money whether it’s $1 or $100,000,” he said. “It’s dark money because we don’t know who is subsidizing that salary.
“A Legislature that doesn’t ask questions about an important appointee who is paid with politically dark money — they don’t appear to be truly committed to ethics and transparency in government.”
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said he wants to know more about Mason’s pay.
“If you want to get to the bottom of something, generally you can follow the money,” he said.
Stutts said he feels sorry for Bentley and his family.
“But aside from all that, he has responsibility to the state, and through this ordeal he has lost a lot of credibility,” Stutts said.
Bridgmon said, at this point, the people of Alabama will keep Bentley for another 2½ years.
“That’s if nothing else happens,” she said. “Who knows what could happen next.”