Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) resigned Monday after fighting for more than a year against allegations he used public resources to carry out and conceal an affair with his former top aide.
Pressure built on Bentley to step down over the sex scandal as state lawmakers opened impeachment hearings against him this week and state Republican officials called for him to leave the governor’s mansion.
Bentley also pleaded guilty on Monday to two misdemeanor charges related to covering up the alleged affair, one for failing to file a major contribution report and another for knowingly using campaign contributions for personal use, according to the state’s attorney general office.
“I love the people of this state with all my heart,” he told reporters as he announced his resignation inside the Alabama State Capitol.
On his way to officially resign, Bentley showed up to the Montgomery County Jail and posed for a mug shot.
The events leading to the end of Bentley’s career were spelled out in the 3,000 pages of a report released by the House Judiciary Committee attorney Friday detailing various indiscretions the governor may allegedly tried to keep secret as he carried out an affair with his married aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
The report says Bentley texted heart-eyed emojis to Caldwell — texts that were linked up to his now ex-wife’s iPad — and made threats to the first lady’s staff to keep the affair secret. The report also detailed what allegedly went on behind closed doors when Mason, according to the report, left the office “with her hair tousled and her clothing in disarray.”
The Alabama Ethics Commission recommended Wednesday the governor be charged with four felonies related to campaign finance and ethics fraud tied to his affair, including an allegation he illegally loaned Mason campaign money for legal funds. Under a deal struck with the state attorney general’s office, Bentley plead guilty to misdemeanor charges in an effort to avoid felony charges and potential jail time.
Under the plea deal, Bentley will face up to a year of probation and 100 hours of community service, which he is expected to perform in his capacity as a licensed dermatologist. He must turn over some $37,000 in campaign funds to the state. He could face jail time, but it’s unlikely.
Up until the moment he resigned Monday, Bentley fervently denied he had done anything that should cost him his job. He never fully admitted to an affair, even after a secretly taped phone call leaked of him professing his love to a woman named “Rebekah.”
“I do not plan to resign,” Bentley said on the Alabama state Capitol steps just Friday morning. “I have done nothing illegal.”
But a series of events unfolded over the past few days that intensified the pressure on the Republican governor to make a decision about whether to keep defending himself in both the state House and the courts or to step down.
Bentley did not react to the 3,000-page report released Friday afternoon, which, among other salacious details, alleged he opened a hotel door while on a business trip in Washington, D.C., in his boxers expecting to see Mason. By Saturday, Alabama’s Supreme Court agreed to let state House impeachment proceedings go ahead. By Sunday, the state Republican Party officially called on the governor to step down. By Monday afternoon, Bentley booked himself at the Montgomery County Jail. By evening, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey (R) was sworn in as governor; Alabama’s second female governor in state history.
Bentley’s resignation comes a little more than a year and a half before the second of his two terms is up.
The 74-year-old former dermatologist was an unlikely choice to rise to the state’s top job. The little-known state legislator surprised many in Alabama politics by making it to a runoff for the governor’s race in 2010. In a state familiar with corruption, Bentley leaned heavily on his wholesome, grandfatherly demeanor — he was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at a Baptist church in Tuscaloosa, which Mason also attended. Despite struggling to achieve any significant legislative accomplishment, in his 2014 reelection race, Bentley won the largest percentage of the vote — 63 percent — of any modern-day Republican governor in Alabama.
Then, scandal. In August 2015, Bentley’s wife of 50 years, Dianne, abruptly filed for divorce. Rumors of an affair between Bentley and Mason had swirled around Alabama politics for months before the story finally broke open in March 2016. Bentley fired the state’s top cop, who then went to AL.com, Alabama’s largest statewide news organization, with sordid details of Bentley and Mason’s alleged affair. He was armed with a phone call between Bentley and a woman he addresses as “Rebekah” that, unknown to the two on the phone, was being taped by Bentley’s now ex-wife.
“Baby, let me know what I am going to do when I start locking the door,” Bentley is heard saying. “If we are going to do what we did the other day, we are going to have to start locking the door.”
A few days later, defiant Bentley asked God for forgiveness for an unknown sin while he was touring a jail to promote his prison reform legislation. He said at a news conference that he loved some of his staff more than others, and he and responded “no” when a reporter asked if that phone call was the only indiscretion. But he never quite admitted to an affair.
As he defended himself, Bentley was walking an increasingly lonely road. Alabama Republicans in the state legislature had little to lose and much to gain by abandoning the governor, who had few ties to the GOP establishment. If Bentley didn’t go of his own accord, Alabama Republicans say he would have been impeached in the next month or two anyway. The House Judiciary Committee defended its right to impeach Bentley in a last-minute court battle that played out over the weekend.
Bentley will become the third top Alabama public official in less than a year to lose his job over a scandal and/or face jail time. Former House speaker Mike Hubbard (R) was sentenced in July to four years in prison after being convicted of violating state ethics laws he helped pass by using his political leverage to increase his personal wealth. And in September, a state ethics court suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, citing “clear and convincing” evidence that he tried to block same-sex marriage in the state after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing it.
Bentley will be Alabama’s fourth governor to resign while in office. Most recently, former Alabama governor Guy Hunt (R) resigned in 1993 after being convicted of taking $200,000 from his inaugural fund for personal use.
Former Democratic governor Don Siegelman just finished serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2006 — three years after he left office — for corruption related to bribery.