By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) was re-elected in November 2014, with an incredible landslide victory over former Congressman Parker Griffith. Bentley crushed his weak GOP Primary opponents and cruised to an easy victory over Griffith, refusing to debate along the way. From that glorious victory to the present, little had gone right for the Bentley Administration and the Governor has acted more and more irrationally.
The day after winning his victory, Bentley claimed that he had just discovered there were problems in the State General Fund (SGF), a bizarre claim since everybody knew the SGF had been propped up through the 2015 fiscal year by a raid of the Alabama Trust Fund approved by voters at the urging of Bentley. That $140 million a year had to be made up somehow.
Even though Republicans had a supermajority in both Houses of the Alabama legislature, the Governor then appointed a Democrat, former Speaker of the House Seth Hammett as Chief of Staff.
In the months between his victory and the 2015 legislative session, he failed to meet in formal talks with the leaders of the legislature to set the agenda for the second Bentley terms or even to craft a SGF solution prior to the 2015 Legislative Session.
Bentley left Mrs. Bentley at their home in Tuscaloosa while moving in to the Blount mansion in Montgomery. This whole time, Mrs. Rebekah Caldwell Mason moved from being his campaign consultant to play a much more public role in the administration of the State. Affair rumors that had been swirling since 2014, began to pick up steam.
Mason was getting paid by a shadow foundation that does not report who contributes money to it or why.
The Doctor-turned-Governor then unilaterally proposed a 45 percent increase in the SGF by raising taxes on almost everyone in the State and moving $240 million in use taxes from the Education Trust Fund (ETF to the SGF) even though Bentley had just been reelected touting smaller government and no new taxes. When State Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison) put up a billboard affirming his no new taxes pledge, the Bentley Administration shut down ongoing road projects in Holtzclaw’s district. At a meeting with Republican legislators an angry Bentley vowed to shut down State moneys into the districts of legislators who opposed his tax plan. The disaster of a plan was dead on arrival at the Legislature.
Senate President Del Marsh (R-Anniston) attempted to throw Bentley a lifeline by introducing a controversial plan to raise SGF revenue by allowing casino gaming and creating a lottery. Bentley refused to back that or any other gaming plan, insisting instead that the Legislature pass his $540 million tax plan.
While still claiming the State was in a fiscal crisis, the Governor insisted that the legislature borrow $50 million in bonds to build a $110 million beach front hotel and conference center to replace the old Gulf State Park Lodge destroyed by a hurricane early in former Governor Bob Riley’s (R) administration. Bentley then went on talk radio and trashed the Senate General Fund Committee Chairman Arthur Orr for resistance to his beachfront project. 2015 legislative session budget negotiations collapsed and the legislature passed a lean SGF budget with cuts to state general fund agencies across the board. The Governor then vetoed the 2016 fiscal year SGF budget and the 2015 legislative session ended in disaster.
June 2015, Gov. Bentley in a knee-jerk reaction to a mass shooting in South Carolina unilaterally ordered all of the Confederate flags be removed from the Capital grounds. The move generated some positive press nationally but angered a large component of Bentley’s base. Hundreds of Confederate flag supporters descended on Montgomery protesting the removal of the flags from the Confederate Veterans Memorial and the house where Jefferson Davis lived.
The Governor then agreed to give Marsh and Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) time to craft some sort of consensus deal. Without ever providing any sound rationale for doing so, Bentley and Mason then inexplicably broke out of that deal and ordered the legislature to come back on Monday for a hastily called special session in four days. An angry legislature came back and then promptly went on vacation for three weeks. When they returned Speaker Hubbard crafted together a series of tax increases that would have raised approximately $180 to $200 million for the SGF. Conservatives in the legislature balked at any part of the plan. Hubbard and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) were able through sheer force of personality and threats to get that out of committee. When it went to the House floor, Democrats refused to support the plan because it did not include a lottery. The Governor was taken by surprise by the move, as he just assumed that the Democrats would support his plan to fully fund Medicaid (a program whose costs was rising exponentially due to anemic job growth and the effects of Obamacare).
The second Special Session ended in total disarray as Bentley was still refusing to accept any politically possible compromise, Democrats were refusing to vote for a Republican tax increase plan with no lottery and conservative Republicans in the legislature were increasingly hostile to any tax increases. No SGF budget even passed on to the increasingly unpopular Governor in that session.
On Friday, August 28, Mrs. Dianne Bentley, who had been alone in Tuscaloosa since at least January, while still keeping up her First Lady duties, filed for divorce from the fifty year marriage. Bentley was taken by surprise by the legal move. Rumors of the affair between Bentley and Mason were made public. Bloggers Roger Shuler and Donald Watkins independently broke the story, which was picked by mainstream media.
In September, during the Second Special Session to fix the SGF Marsh and Hubbard were able to craft a plan where the legislature would raise $66 million in taxes on cigarettes, prescription drugs, and nursing home beds while moving $66 million in use taxes from the ETF. Bentley waffled on the lotter, but too late to get a bill passed. Hubbard and Marsh were able to barely get the votes to get the plan and the resulting SGF budget out of the legislature. The governor was forced to accept the deal or risk getting nothing in a third Special Session.
Through three legislative session Bentley kept demanding a $50 million bond issue for the conference center hotel in a hurricane zone. Failing to get that passed, Bentley elected to take the money from the BP oil spill settlement. Environmental groups sued contending that the money was for coastal restoration and not public works monuments. They would win the lawsuit, but Bentley vowed to build his luxury state-owned hotel anyway, despite the cuts endured by most general fund agencies.
Hammett left as the Chief of Staff and was never replaced, as Mrs. Mason was acknowledged by everyone as being the de facto power in the Bentley administration. Bentley would later settle with Mrs. Bentley before depositions could begin. Mrs. Bentley took most of the money, the Alabama football tickets, two homes on the gulf and gets to live in the couple’s Tuscaloosa home until the end of Bentley’s second term.
Bentley retaliated against legislators who refused to support his tax plan by closing 31 driver’s license offices, four state parks, a number of Alabama National Guard armories, and even some state owned liquor stores. Since rural Black Counties were the hardest hit by the moves and since Alabama requires a valid ID to vote, the NAACP and the Obama Administration accused the state of voter suppression by making it harder for rural voters to get drivers licenses. The state was sued and litigation over the matter is ongoing even though Bentley has relented to a point and agreed to open the driver’s license offices one day a month.
Governor Bentley and Mrs. Mason held a private meeting with the Alabama Republican Party Steering Committee. The group held a frank discussion with the Governor in which members accused him of hurting the Republican brand in Alabama. Days later someone released an audio tape of the secret meeting to pro-Bentley political columnist and reporter Chuck Dean. Angry steering committee members accused Mason of being the party who taped the meeting and shared it with the press.
Bentley began rebuilding the old Governor’s mansion on the gulf coast. The $1.8 million project was done on Bentley’s order even though the state was suffering the effects of a SGF budget cuts. Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said the Governor was rebuilding the wrecked mansion to make up for the two Gulf Coast homes he lost in the divorce settlement with Mrs. Bentley.
Again, there was little in the way of actual communications between the Bentley Administration and the legislature prior to the 2016 legislative session. The Governor claims he needs an additional $100 million for Medicaid in fiscal year 2017 to pay for the same services and implement the troubled Medicaid reform plan which is supposed to transform the disastrously expensive state Medicaid agency from a State managed fees for service model to a managed care model managed by regional care organizations (RCOs). The legislature passed the Medicaid reform legislation in Bentley’s first term but did not pass a funding mechanism to actually pay for implementing the plan. The budget that passed the legislature on Wednesday, March 23 came up $85 million short of what Bentley claims he needs to keep up with demands for healthcare from the state’s nearly one million Medicaid beneficiaries.
Bentley has also proposed replacing 16 Alabama prisons with four new much larger prisons. The Governor wants an $800 million bond issue to pay for his controversial new prison building scheme. The massive new prisons will be all built by one contractor for the $800 million upfront. It will take three decades to pay off the bonds and there is no funding mechanism in place for paying down the new debt; but the Bentley Administration claims it can pay $50 million a year through improved efficiency….even though Alabama already spends less per prisoner per day of any state in the country. That bill was carried over in the Senate on Wednesday after opponents questioned the soundness of adding all of that new debt.
Bentley is threatening to veto the SGF budget. State Senator Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia) said on Tuesday that the legislature expects Bentley to veto the budget, but said that they will override his veto.
In any other administration the prisons and the SGF budget would be the biggest news stories of the week. Not in the Bentley Administration. The Governor shocked everyone by raising the pay of members of his cabinet and staff……in some cases by as much as $75,000 a year.
Bentley is expected to be a witness in the April Mike Hubbard trial for 23 charges of felony ethics violations. Sources close to the investigation speculate that because Mrs. Mason did not want Bentley testifying in any court room, where possibly questions could be asked about her and the Governor’s relationship, the Bentley Administration supported defense efforts to remove prosecutor Matt Hart from the case, in hopes that the trial could be delayed or the case dismissed by the court. When Montgomery lawyer, campaign manager, and talk radio personality Baron Coleman (after being a longtime Mike Hubbard critic) volunteered to become a Hubbard defense witness, the AG’s office asserted that Coleman was a paid State informant.
Gov. Bentley ordered long time friend and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) head Spencer Collier to refuse a Hart request for an affidavit in the Hubbard case acknowledging that Coleman was working for law enforcement thus making his testimony privileged. Realizing that failure to supply this affidavit, could possibly be criminal obstruction of justice Collier defied Bentley’s orders and complied with Attorney General’s office request, asserting that it was his duty to honor the prosecution request. Bentley was enraged. He suspended Collier and installed his longtime body guard and the head of his the State’s dignitary protection service Stan Stabler as the acting ALEA Secretary.
Stabler, allegedly acting on the orders of Mason and Bentley, then sacked most of the leadership at ALEA alleging that there was improper use of State resources without waiting for the Attorney General’s office to investigate any of the allegations, much less empanel a Grand Jury to look at the allegations of misconduct.
An angry Collier then denounced Mason and publicly exposed the long talked about affair. Audiotapes of Mason and Bentley appear to confirm that the pair were indeed lovers. Bentley and Mason both acknowledge that the audiotape is indeed them and that the conversation was inappropriate; but continue to maintain that no physicality ever actually happened.
Mason’s husband, Jon Mason, heads the Governor’s faith based initiatives office and is paid $92,000 per year.
Meanwhile a growing number of voices are calling on Attorney General Luther Strange to investigate Bentley’s increasingly bizarre conduct and whether or not crimes may have been committed.
On Thursday, Strange said in a statement, “In light of the accusations of potential wrongdoing that have been made over the last two days, and the numerous inquiries that my office has received, I would like to assure the public that the Attorney General’s Office takes very seriously any allegations involving potential criminal misconduct. My office has a strong record of probing illegal activity in this state and we will continue to do our job. That said, pursuant to our longstanding policy regarding pending criminal investigations, I will have no further comment at this time.”
On Friday, Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a formal ethics complaint against Governor Bentley. Zeigler said, “The Governor continues to disgrace the state of Alabama and in my official capacity as State Auditor, I am required to report these suspected violations.” The Governor denies any criminal wrongdoing.
Gov. Bentley is expected to call another Special Session to try to force the legislature to give him more money to spend on the Alabama Medicaid Program which has been hemorrhaging money at an increasing pace.
Most major newspapers and a growing number of legislators including State Senator Shay Shelnutt (R-Trussville), State Representative David Standridge (R-Hayden), and House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) have called on Bentley to resign over the scandal that has appeared on many national news sites.
Bentley is refusing to resign and is refusing to fire Mrs. Mason. Legislators and columnists alike have questioned whether Bentley can possibly be effective at moving his agenda forward at this point.