A legislative committee starts hearings this morning to consider impeachment of Gov. Robert Bentley, a historic process that could remove the governor from office over allegations that he abused his power to try to hide from the public an affair with top advisor Rebekah Mason.
The governor has denied misusing state resources. Bentley’s lawyers tried to block today’s hearings and the release of a scathing investigation report issued Friday by Jack Sharman, special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. They argue the governor is not receiving due process.
On Friday, a Montgomery County judge granted Bentley’s lawyers a temporary restraining order, but the Alabama Supreme Court stayed that ruling in a 7-0 decision on Saturday, allowing today’s hearing to proceed, although the court did order both sides to file briefs today.
Sharman’s report, based on witness interviews and documents, says Bentley used law enforcement and intimidation to try to block the release of recordings of provocative phone calls that revealed the nature of his relationship with Mason.
Former first lady Dianne Bentley secretly recorded the calls in 2014 and filed for divorce to end her 50-year marriage the next year.
Former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier said that after hearing the recordings he warned Bentley that using state or campaign resources to carry on an affair with Mason would be a crime.
The report says Bentley later sought to discredit Collier by firing him for alleged potential misspending. The attorney general’s office cleared Collier.
Ray Lewis, the former head of Bentley’s protective security team, said he warned Bentley repeatedly about Mason traveling with the governor on official state business when she was working for the governor’s campaign and not a state employee, but Bentley insisted.
Ross Garber, an attorney for the governor’s office, disparaged Sharman’s report in a statement on Friday.
“We will review today’s document dump – which appears to be an amalgam of hearsay, rumor and innuendo,” Garber said.
Sharman’s report said Bentley did not cooperate with the investigation and tried to obstruct it. Bentley declined a request for a transcribed interview under oath and did not respond meaningfully to requests for documents, the report says.
On Tuesday, Bentley’s lawyers will get an opportunity to make a presentation and call witnesses before the Judiciary Committee.
The hearings are scheduled to continue through the week.
The committee’s tentative schedule calls for it to receive a final report form Sharman on April 21 and a written response from the governor a week later.
The tentative date for a committee vote on the report is May 1.
The report, a recommendation on whether to impeach the governor, would go to the full House of Representatives in early May.
If the House voted for impeachment, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey would assume the governor’s duties.
Bentley could return to office if acquitted in a trial by the Senate.
The Alabama Legislature has never impeached a governor or any other elected official.
A Senate subcommittee is working on rules to determine how an impeachment trial would work.
A parallel criminal investigation is also pending. The Alabama Ethics Commission last week issued three findings of probable cause that Bentley violated the campaign finance law and one finding of probable cause that he violated the ethics law.
The commission forwarded the allegations to the Montgomery County District Attorney for possible prosecution.
The charges are felonies that carry prison sentences of two to 20 years.
On Friday morning, Bentley read a statement on the Capitol steps, questioning the motives of those who he said have sought to embarrass and shame him and his family.
Bentley admitted he had made mistakes but said he had not broken the law and said he would not resign. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh called for Bentley to resign last week.
“I have done nothing illegal,” Bentley said. “If the people want to know if I misused state resources, the answer is simply no, I have not.”