Report: Ala. Gov. Bentley misused vehicles, personnel for affair

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley pursued an increasingly public relationship with senior political advisor Rebekah Caldwell Mason that cut or strained ties with his wife and family, led him to misuse state workers and vehicles and in at least two cases threatened a staffer he believed recorded a conversation he had with Mason.

Those were the allegations made in a report prepared for the state's House Judiciary Committee as it prepared to consider the governor's impeachment, a broad outline of the case prosecutors expect to make in arguing for the governor's removal from office.

The 131-report, part of a broader filing running around 3,000 pages, paints a picture of Bentley becoming enamored with Mason while they worked on his 2014 re-election campaign. It also suggests the governor's suspicions that his wife taped a suggestive conversation he had with Mason made him emotionally unstable. At times, the report said, he spoke to aides about the relationship with tearful contrition. At others, it claimed, he confronted aides who knew or who he thought knew about the relationship with defiance, anger and threats.

The report also details growing suspicions among Bentley's friends and family. At one point, it says, First Lady Dianne Bentley — who divorced the governor in 2015 after 50 years of marriage — took a cellphone picture of what capitol employees termed "the love bench," a bench in full view of office windows where Bentley and Mason would sit together.

"If Governor Bentley meant to hide his affair from his wife, he did not do it well," the report said.

Bentley says he has broken no laws, and resisted calls from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon to resign. He said Friday morning there was no need to release embarrassing details of his personal life.

“Exposing embarrassing details of my past personal life, as has happened in the past, and as I’m told will happen again, will not create one single job, will not pass one budget," Bentley said. "It will not help any child get a good education. It will not help a child get good health care."

Ross Garber, Bentley's attorney, was largely dismissive of the report in a statement Friday evening.

"We will review today's document dump, which appears to be an amalgam of hearsay, rumor and innuendo," the statement said. "I continue to have confidence there will ultimately be fairness and due process in this matter."

► Alabama governor seeks forgiveness in wake of ethics ruling

Dramatic finish

The release of the report followed three dramatic days in Montgomery, pushing the Bentley administration to the brink. The Alabama Ethics Commission Wednesday found "probable cause" that Bentley violated the state's ethics and campaign finance laws. On Friday morning,  Bentley coupled an emotional plea for forgiveness with a lawsuit to delay the release of the report and the impeachment process.

Bentley's attorneys initially tried to stop the release of the report, too, but the House Judiciary Committee released it Friday afternoon, while Bentley legal advisor David Byrne argued his case before Griffin.

"We think it's appropriate to have that in the public arena," Jack Sharman, the House Judiciary Committee's special counsel, said after the hearing. "It is the public's information. It's where it should be."

Allegations of Bentley's affair with Mason, first made by Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, came amid major political crises dating to 2014 that led to House Speaker Mike Hubbard's conviction and removal from office and the removal of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. The compromised political leadership led to messy fights over the state's budgets that required multiple sessions to resolve.

Trips, disruptions

The report, culled from interviews with dozens of witnesses, added detail to some of the allegations made against Bentley. Collier alleged that Bentley and Mason used state resources to pursue the affair, though the scope of it wasn't clear. The report alleges that Bentley became increasingly heedless of allowing Mason — who was not a state employee at the time — to use state vehicles, including joining the governor on a helicopter trip to Wilcox County in 2014 while spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis, it says, drove to the event.

According to the report, Ray Lewis, who was Bentley's detail protection man, said Lewis believed keeping Mason out of the cars was a necessity "based on his years of experience in dignitary protection."

"Lewis explained that, in the event of an emergency situation, the presence of nonofficial personnel could impede his primary duty of protecting Governor Bentley," it said.

The report also says the relationship disrupted the operations of the governor's office. The report says Ardis told investigators "nothing could be done in the office without Mason's sign-off." Seth Hammett, a former Alabama House Speaker and Bentley's former chief of staff, said in the report that Mason "upended" his efforts to keep the office disciplined, and that Bentley decide something late in the evening, only to change it in the morning.

"The only person in the Administration with regular access to Governor Bentley after hours was Mason," the report said.

The report also said that 10 days before the Bentleys' divorce was finalized in 2015, Mason drafted a "Bentley Joint Statement" that would have had Dianne Bentley speak appreciatively of her time as First Lady, while blasting "erroneous and unsubstantiated media reports" about the governor and Mason's relationship.

"Ms. Bentley never delivered that statement," the report said.

A 'watershed' moment

However, the report points to recordings made by Dianne Bentley of the governor and Mason as a "watershed" moment.

"Most relevant to the Committee’s consideration of the proposed Articles of Impeachment, however, is the fact that Governor Bentley became obsessed with the existence of the tapes and a desire to prevent them from becoming public," the report says.

The report says the recordings, which Dianne Bentley's chief of staff Heather Hannah made a copy of and which Dianne Bentley shared with her son Paul and daughter-in-law Melissa, led Gov. Bentley to threaten staff members or use them in strange ways. In 2014, the report says, the governor confronted Hannah in a kitchen and said "you will never work in the State of Alabama again if you tell anyone about this (the affair).”

On another occasion, the report says, Bentley confronted Hannah in the parking lot of the governor's mansion and suggested that she had planted bugs in his office to listen to his conversations with Mason.

"Hannah relates that Governor Bentley warned her to "watch herself," that she “did not know what she was getting into,” and that because he was the governor, people “bow to his throne,”" the report said.

The report also claims Bentley directed Lewis to break off the affair on at least two occasions. In the first, the report said, Lewis had an hour-long conversation with Mason saying it was time to end the affair, only to have Bentley enter the conference room where they were meeting and have Bentley comfort her and tell her 'it's alright baby. It's going to be alright."

"Lewis recalls thinking at that point that his efforts to end the affair were out the window," the report said.

The report says Bentley "took significant efforts" in the fall of 2014 to find the tapes, sending staff members to question Hannah and Linda Adams, his director of scheduling, about the tapes. Collier visited and questioned her about the tapes, a visit that left Adams "shaken," according to the report, though Collier concluded she didn't know anything about them.  The report also says Bentley and Collier asked SBI Special Agent Scot Lee to investigate Hannah, which Lee refused.

"Lee was bothered by what he called the “you may want to look at . . .” nature of the proposed assignment," the report said. "The objective, he felt, was not to solve a crime, but to determine who had the tapes."

What's next

The report will form the basis of the impeachment investigation, but for now that has been stalled. In a statement late Friday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones said the committee would meeting Monday -- when hearings were supposed to start -- to take up procedural matters and discuss court action.

Bentley asked for forgiveness Friday but rejected calls from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, to resign. Both said the impeachment process would be a wrenching distraction for the state.

"It’s the only way to avoid taking our state on a long, painful and embarrassing journey whose ending is likely known to us all," McCutcheon said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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