The Alabama Ethics Commission has found probable cause that Gov. Robert Bentley violated the state ethics law and the campaign finance law.
The commission, in four separate votes, determined there was probable cause that Bentley violated one count of the ethics law and three counts of the campaign finance law.
The decision forwards the investigation to the Montgomery County district attorney.
Bentley has denied wrongdoing.
The commission found probable cause that:
- Bentley violated the state ethics law by using public resources, including subordinate personnel, equipment and time under his control, for personal interests. The vote was 3-1 with one abstention (Commissioner Frank C. “Butch” Ellis, whose wife is related to Bentley, recused on all four votes).
- Bentley violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act by improperly receiving a campaign contribution outside the 120-day window allowed by law. The vote was 4-0 with Ellis abstaining.
- Bentley violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act by using funds from his campaign to pay legal fees for former political adviser Rebekah Mason. The vote was 4-0 with Ellis abstaining.
- Bentley violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act by improperly making a loan to his campaign account outside the 120-day window allowed by law when not a candidate. The vote was 3-1 with Ellis abstaining.
Bentley attorney William Athanas said shortly after the decision that the governor would defend himself against the charges and noted that today’s ruling was probable cause, not a conviction.
Athanas said he respected the commission’s decision but disagreed with it.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” Athanas said. “We appreciate the time and effort that the commission spent on this. We disagree strongly with the result. But it’s important to keep in mind that this is simply a finding of probable cause, not a finding of a violation.
“There is not a basis to find that the governor violated any law, much less the ethics act or the Fair Campaign Practices Act. So the battle goes on.”
Athanas declined to say whether Bentley testified today, saying the law prohibits him from talking about what happened during the closed session.
The violations would all be Class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.
The vote came after the commission heard testimony from witnesses in a closed session.
Ethics Commission investigations are covered under the grand jury secrecy act.
Bentley has been hounded for a year by allegations involving his relationship with former political adviser Rebekah Mason.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a complaint against Bentley in March 2016, alleging that Bentley misused state resources for personal benefit to carry out an affair with Mason. Zeigler cited several other potential violations in his complaint.
Zeigler was at the commission today and said he was on call as a potential witness.
“The ruling of the Ethics Commission is only one step in holding Gov. Bentley accountable,” Zeigler said after the votes.
“The next step can be taken by the district attorney or the House Judiciary Committee.”
Stacy George, a state corrections officer who ran against Bentley in the 2014 Republican primary and said he filed six ethics complaints against Bentley, was also at the commission today as a potential witness.
Witnesses for today’s hearing used an alternate entrance, mostly outside the view of reporters.
Photographers captured images of Bentley leaving the building this evening before the commission vote. Bentley did not pass through the area where the media was waiting.
In a press release, the Ethics Commission said it investigated the complaints for more than one year. Special agents interviewed more than 45 witnesses and analyzed more than 33,000 documents.
Former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, former Bentley chief of staff and House Speaker Seth Hammett and Secretary of State John Merrill were among the possible witnesses seen in the building where the commission is meeting today.
Collier has been a key figure throughout the Bentley scandal. In March 2016, Collier said he had seen evidence that Bentley and Mason were having an affair in 2014, urged Bentley to end it and advised him that it would be illegal to use state resources to facilitate it.
Collier has said Bentley fired him as ALEA secretary because he gave an affidavit to prosecutors in the Mike Hubbard ethics case against Bentley’s wishes.
Merrill has said he believed it was illegal for Bentley to use campaign funds to pay $8,912 in legal expenses for Mason last year. Merrill said his office reported the payment to the Ethics Commission to fulfill his obligation under state law.
Bentley attorney Athanas explained in a letter to the Ethics Commission why he believed the payment was legal. Bentley disclosed the payment on his campaign finance report.
Aside from the Ethics Commission’s decision today, the Alabama House Judiciary Committee is considering impeachment charges against the governor.
The committee’s special counsel, Jack Sharman, is scheduled to release a report on his investigation on Friday. Impeachment hearings are tentatively scheduled to begin on Monday.
Bentley attorney Ross Garber has argued that the governor is being denied due process in the committee’s investigation and has proposed an alternate plan.
Also, the state attorney general’s office is investigating Bentley.
Athanas said he did not consider today’s decisions by the commission a significant setback for the governor in defending himself on multiple fronts.
“This is not a finding of a violation, it is a finding of probable cause, which is one of the lowest legal standards that we apply in these cases,” Athanas said. “There’s a great distance between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.”
State Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, who is chairman of the House Rural Caucus and was one of the 23 House members who signed the impeachment resolution against Bentley a year ago, said in a statement tonight that he hoped the impeachment process would continue along with the criminal investigation.
“This is a sad day for our state, but today’s decision by the Ethics Commission confirms what I have been saying for nearly a year now: Governor Bentley has lost his way and needs to step aside,” Standridge said. “Government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ requires the highest of ethics and integrity from our elected officials. Unfortunately, Governor Bentley has not lived up to this expectation.”
Updated at 7:25 a.m. on April 6 to say that the wife of Commissioner Butch Ellis is related to Gov. Bentley. Updated at 7:35 a.m. on April 6 to add words “probable cause” to the second sentence in the story.