Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigns; lieutenant governor replaces him

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama's governor, embroiled in impeachment proceedings that began Monday, resigned Monday afternoon amid a criminal probe into claims of misuse of state resources to pursue and later cover up his affair with a former staffer.

Allegations of the affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, 45, which consumed his administration for more than a year, broke up GOP Gov. Robert Bentley's marriage of 50 years in 2015. Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, 72, became Alabama's second female governor and its first female Republican governor when she was sworn in at 6 p.m. CT.

On Monday afternoon, Bentley, 74, was booked into Montgomery County Jail on two misdemeanor campaign finance charges. He pleaded guilty to failing to file a major campaign finance report and converting campaign money for personal use, was sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence and 12 months of unsupervised probation, ordered to surrender almost $37,000 in unused campaign money, fined about $16,000 additionally and told to serve 100 hours of community service.

Bentley also gave up his right to seek public office again, his ability to appeal the sentence and all retirement benefits.

"There have been times when I have let you and our people down, and I’m sorry for that," Bentley said in late afternoon in the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol after his guilty plea. "The consequences of my mistakes have been grievously unfair to you, my dedicated staff and my Cabinet."

The misdemeanor sentence means that Bentley, a dermatologist since he left the U.S. Air Force, will be able to keep his medical license. He intends to serve his 100 hours of community service performing dermatological work in rural Alabama counties, but it wasn't immediately clear whether his plea would halt a further investigation.

Bentley's governorship became increasingly overshadowed by allegations he pursued an affair with Mason, attempted to use state resources to aid it, and tried to persuade state law enforcement to cover it up. The allegations led to an unprecedented impeachment hearing, something not attempted in 102 years.

"Robert Bentley, governor of Alabama, directed law enforcement to advance his personal interests over those of the state," Jack Sharman, special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, told state lawmakers Monday afternoon. "In timelines characterized by increasingly desperate conduct, he subjected honest career law enforcement to tasks to protect his reputation, both political and personal."

It was the first-ever impeachment directed at an Alabama governor, and the first impeachment the chamber had considered since 1915.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, a Republican from Monrovia, Ala., said Monday night that he was "grateful that Governor Bentley has seen the writing on the wall."

Bentley's resignation cut short the proceedings to remove him from office. Throughout this past week he had maintained his innocence, denied doing anything illegal and insisted he would not resign.

On Wednesday, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that the governor had violated ethics and campaign finance laws and forwarded its conclusions to Montgomery County's district attorney, Daryl Bailey, for prosecution. Its report proved a major blow to Bentley and what little political capital he had remaining in the Legislature.

By Friday afternoon, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and McCutcheon — both Republicans who had previously steered clear of comments on impeachment or Bentley's legal woes — called on Bentley to resign and scheduled the impeachment hearing.

Later the same afternoon, a damaging impeachment report prepared for the state House Judiciary Committee depicted Bentley as obsessed with recovering recordings of conversations between him and Mason that then-first lady Dianne Bentley had made. The governor threatened staffers who knew or whom he thought knew about the affair and sent law enforcement to recover the tapes or question those he thought might know about them.

The governor also was accused of using a member of his security team on at least two occasions to try to break up with Mason. She remains with her husband, according to her Facebook page.

The report alleges Bentley brought Mason with him in state vehicles and aircraft, at times overriding his security detail to do so. Sharman said he requested and received pre-edited flight logs for his investigation.

The report also depicted the governor becoming emotionally unstable over the relationship, wavering between tearful contrition and angry defiance, to the point of threatening staffers who knew or who he believed knew about the existence of the tapes.

Bentley's lawyers fought back against the impeachment hearing. The governor had a limited ability to ask questions of witnesses and mount a defense, but his defense team insisted that he should be able to confront and cross-examine witnesses before the state House Judiciary Committee. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin delayed the hearings Friday after the governor's lawyers made that argument in court.

On Saturday, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that ruling.

By Monday, Bailey had sent the state Ethics Commission findings to Ellen Brooks, serving as acting attorney general in a probe that office is conducting into Bentley's conduct. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, appointed by the governor in February, recused himself from the Bentley investigation shortly afterward.

In the impeachment hearing, Sharman began his opening arguments against Bentley, mainly outlining the history of impeachment and the Alabama Constitution's somewhat hazy description of it.

"Impeachment is the people’s check against political excess," Sharman told the committee. "It is a remedy of the state as opposed to punishment for an individual as in a criminal case."

Bentley's lawyers had been expected to make their case Tuesday, now unnecessary.

While the potential impeachment of a sitting governor was unprecedented, the governor's ordeal was only part of a larger leadership crisis in state government for more than 2½ years:

• In June, House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted on 12 felony ethics charges and removed from office.

• In September, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended for the remainder of his term after instructing probate judges in the state, in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, to not issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Rep. Mike Ball, a Republican from Madison, Ala., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, recused himself from Bentley's hearing. Jones, who announced the recusal, did not provide a reason.

Ball had signed the articles of impeachment filed against Bentley in May. The governor's legal team had tried to get everyone on the committee who signed the articles of impeachment to recuse themselves.

Bentley took no questions at his Monday press conference and did not say what led him to change his mind about resigning. He did say he realized some "things (were) more important than a political office" and hoped to find a way to continue service in his state.

© 2017 USA TODAY


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