MONTGOMERY, Ala. — One week ago, Alabama’s governor made a decision that rumbled through the capitol.
He would quit — sign a plea deal and walk away.
Governor Robert Bentley told the room of staffers, cabinet members and reporters, “It is time for me to step down as Alabama’s governor.”
The final announcement came after a long list of very public embarrassments for the governor, who had his relationship with the woman who was once his Senior Political Advisor exposed. It came with a myriad of accusations that Bentley used his power and his office to facilitate and cover up the relationship.
But that last news conference — on a Monday afternoon in the historic Old House Chamber — came just four days after a very different one, held on a bleary Friday morning, where the Governor rejected resignation and invoked the Lord. He told the state that day, “May God bless this great state as I continue to try to serve in the way that God has placed me in this position.”
So what changed Bentley’s heart? Or more accurately, what changed his mind?
Not long after letting the Capitol door slam shut behind him following his insistence that he would hold his office to the last, then-governor Bentley sat down with Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia). The Alabama Ethics Commission had already found probable cause Bentley broke the law; the leader of the Senate had called for resignation the day before. But a party insider says the visit from McCutcheon started to sway Bentley’s resolve.
He tells WHNT News 19, “I feel like the discussion we had, it may have brought up some things which got him to think about what was ahead and what needed to be done.”
Bentley’s legal team was — at that moment — battling fiercely in a Montgomery Circuit Court. They were fighting for a stay in impeachment proceedings that could prevent committee hearings and maybe stall the looming report, then set to be released that afternoon. The report promised to be rife with embarrassment for Bentley.
But isolated from the legal battle, McCutcheon served as oracle. He read the tea leaves to Bentley. Multiple sources tell us the governor found it persuasive
“Especially when we talked about the votes in the House and the fact that we felt like that impeachment was imminent,” McCutcheon says.
On Friday afternoon, McCutcheon held a news conference to call for Bentley’s resignation. This time, he would do it publicly. That evening, the impeachment report lived up to its reputation, leveling serious accusations of misuse of state resources as well as archiving hundreds of lurid, tawdry texts between Bentley and his paramour, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
On Saturday, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled impeachment hearings against Bentley could proceed. On Sunday, private talk of resignation drifted out from the capital.
“I think it had to be that he finally saw the handwriting on the wall,” Special Assistant Attorney General Ellen Brooks tells us.
Brooks was assigned by Attorney General Steve Marshall to handle the Bentley investigation for the AG’s office.
“All of this literally developed overnight,” Brooks said. “It was Sunday afternoon, and I was traveling home from being on a trip and got a phone call.”
Negotiations over legal terms began in earnest
“It was a good bit of give and take, as you can imagine,” she said.
Resignation quickly took shape. Brooks emphasized, “It was imperative that we cease this administration, so that we can move forward.”
By Sunday evening, the Alabama Republican Party added to calls for Bentley’s resignation.
On Monday morning, impeachment hearings began. Behind the scenes, negotiations continued.
“One of the major priorities for us was having it all done on Monday,” Brooks tells us.
By noon, Brooks says, they had the bones of a plea deal; they fleshed it out over a rumor soaked afternoon. They got a judge’s approval. Bentley would plead guilty to two misdemeanors, one for failing to report a loan to his campaign and one for using campaign money to pay Mason’s legal bills. He agreed to resign and surrender his rights to appeal and to claim a pension. He would turn his campaign fund over to the state.
“It wasn’t so much what he pled guilty to,” Brooks tolds us, “It was that he admitted criminal wrongdoing.”
Bentley gave his remarks and departed — having expressed few explicit regrets.
As for the other parties involved — the legislators and the insiders and the prosecutors — they all shared the same misgiving with us that Brooks did.
She said, “I think the biggest shame in all this is that it didn’t occur a lot sooner.”