The impeachment investigation of Gov. Robert Bentley was a subject of renewed interest in the Alabama House of Representatives last week, but lawmakers generally say the overlapping investigation by the attorney general’s office rightly takes precedence for now.
Some legislators say recent developments in the almost year-long scandal involving the governor raise the distraction level as they grapple with issues like Bentley’s plan to borrow $800 million to build four new prisons. Others say not much has changed.
Those recent developments include the appointment of Attorney General Luther Strange by Bentley to the U.S. Senate and the announcement by Strange’s successor, Bentley appointee Steve Marshall, that the AG’s office is investigating the governor.
“It is, in my opinion, a cloud over the process right now,” said Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden. “It’s something we can’t help but think about when we’re trying to make big decisions.
“There is a problem with trust in the governor’s proposals. That is causing problems in my opinion. You feel like you have to check and double check because confidence has been shaken.”
Standridge, who chairs the House Rural Caucus, said House members heard concerns in their districts after Bentley took former adviser Rebekah Mason on the state plane to the Trump inauguration. (Mason went with her husband, Jon Mason, a Bentley cabinet member who had official business on the trip, according to the governor.)
“I think obviously a lot of people had a problem with that,” Standridge said. “I’m talking about the citizens of Alabama. Then the appointment of Luther Strange under the circumstances raises a lot of eyebrows.
“I think the House sentiment is just a reflection of what they’re hearing in their districts.”
Legislators return to Montgomery on Tuesday to begin the third week of the session.
The governor has denied doing anything illegal or anything to warrant impeachment, which would not necessarily require illegal conduct.
In November, the House Judiciary Committee paused its impeachment investigation of the governor at the request of Strange, who said his office was investigating related matters.
Strange’s successor, Marshall, confirmed last week that the AG’s office is investigating Bentley, recused himself and appointed former Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks to oversee the probe.
House Judiciary Chairman Mike Jones said last week he would consult with Brooks about clearance to resume the committee’s investigation.
Jones said he expects that to happen in time for a vote on impeachment before the end of the legislative session, which will be in late May.
Ross Garber, who represents the governor’s office in the impeachment investigation, said today that Bentley is focused on governing and the legislative session.
“The governor has great respect for Chairman Jones and the members of the Judiciary Committee,” Garber said in a statement. “He is confident that they recognize that any governor is afforded all due process protections at every stage of an impeachment. This is crucial because an impeachment would immediately overturn the votes of the citizens of Alabama and remove the elected governor, even before any trial in the Senate.”
If the Judiciary Committee recommends impeachment to the full House, it would take a vote of 63 representatives, three-fifths of the House, to bring that recommendation up for a vote.
It would then take a vote of 53 members, a majority of the House membership, to send the charges to the Senate for a trial.
Under Section 127 of the state Constitution, the lieutenant governor would assume the duties of the governor’s office upon impeachment, even before the trial.
Only acquittal in the Senate could return Bentley to office.
Last week, Reps. Corey Harbison and Randall Shedd, both Republicans from Cullman County, circulated a new impeachment resolution against the governor in the House, but it did not come up for a vote.
Harbison and Shedd, who did not sign the impeachment resolution against Bentley last year, said they were concerned about what they see as the erosion of public trust in state government caused by the lingering scandal.
Some other legislators said today the Bentley investigations are not keeping them from doing their work and can be resolved in due time.
Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said the appointment of Strange upset some people but he has not seen a great change in attitude of most House members.
“I don’t think it’s affecting our work,” Wood said. “Not in the State House. I can’t see where it is.”
Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery, said he sees no sudden surge in urgency on the impeachment issue.
“I don’t think the fire is lit any hotter,” said Ingram, one of 23 House members who signed the resolution to send the impeachment charges to the Judiciary Committee last year.
Ingram said only a few House members talked to him about impeachment last week. He said lawmakers are more concerned about other issues, such as the prison plan and a possible proposal to raise gasoline taxes to pay for road projects and maintenance.
“I don’t think it’s a distraction,” Ingram said. “It’s still the big elephant in the room, but I think everybody is trying to get everything else done and then we’ll look at it if there’s enough time.”
Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, said he thinks House members are concentrating on issues like funding Medicaid and the state budgets until the Judiciary Committee issues a report.
Wadsworth said the investigations are not affecting his work.
“I represent my district and what he does in the executive branch really has very little impact on what we do,” Wadsworth said.
Two Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Merika Coleman of Birmingham and Marcel Black of Tuscumbia, said there is a growing sense of urgency among some House members to complete the investigation.
“(There is) if I’m not reading fake news,” Black joked.
Black said Bentley’s appointment of Strange to the U.S. Senate concerned some lawmakers.
“Not that I’m saying that there’s anything there, but they did kind of dance around the investigation and related work,” Black said.
Judiciary Chairman Jones has said he believed Strange made the request to suspend the investigation “in good faith” and Strange, when asked about a possible conflict caused by his appointment, noted that he made the request on Nov. 1, a week before Trump’s election, which eventually created the vacancy that he now fills.
When the Judiciary Committee does resume its work, an unresolved question is whether it has the power to enforce subpoenas for witnesses and documents.
Lawyers for the governor’s office say it does not.
Black said it would be difficult for the committee to gather information necessary for the investigation without subpoena power.
Black said he believes Jones did the right thing in suspending the investigation at Strange’s request.
Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, a retired circuit judge, said there does appear to be “some level of angst among some members of the House” about the status of impeachment investigation.
“However, it is important to note that the work of the Judiciary committee was delayed at the request of then Attorney General Luther Strange in November 2016,” Hill said in an email. “General Strange never reported that the work of the AG’s office was completed. I don’t believe it would be prudent to take an action that could interfere with the work of the AG’s office.
“Steve Marshall has only recently been appointed Attorney General and I believe he deserves a reasonable period of time to assess the situation.”
Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, initiated the impeachment resolution last April after allegations that Bentley had an affair with Mason and questions about whether he used state resources to facilitate it.
Bentley admitted to inappropriate behavior with Mason after recordings of phone calls on which he is heard making comments of a sexual nature became public. Bentley and Mason denied they had an affair.
In January, the governor’s annual campaign finance report showed his campaign paid about $9,000 in legal fees for Rebekah Mason in January 2016.
Secretary of State John Merrill said he believed that was an illegal use of campaign funds and notified the Ethics Commission.
Bentley attorney William Athanas wrote a letter to the Ethics Commission explaining why they believed the payment was legal.