By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, June 15, the House Judiciary Committee met in Montgomery to study how their impeachment investigation into alleged misconduct by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) will operate.
State Representative Tim Wadsworth (R-Arley) is an attorney. Rep. Wadsworth said in a statement, “The committee was assigned by the Legislature with the task of investigating possible if any violations of a executive branch public official – Gov. Bentley. This committee hearing and process must be taken seriously and with due diligence. Voters of Alabama have elected Gov. Bentley and their Will should not be taken away without proper legal evidence. The process must be deliberate, non political, fair and with due process. Gov. Bentley and the voters deserve and demand a fair, open and respectful process. Lapses in personal matters are not an impeachable offense. Evidence if any of other wrongdoing may. The Judiciary Committee acts to determine if there is probable cause.”
The Judiciary Committee addressed only the procedures and rules by which the committee will proceed.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) is an attorney and considers himself, “A leading critic of Bentley.” Zeigler said the impeachment process is “way too slow.”
Rep. Zeigler said, “You’ve heard of a ‘slow boat to China?’ Well, this impeachment process is a ‘slow boat on the Alabama River.’”
Under the original rules of the House, it only took 11 members to sign a letter of impeachment. Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) had that months ago. If the leadership of the House had done its job and acted promptly on that, it would have been assigned to a committee and that committee would have determined whether or not sufficient grounds existed to recommend that the full House consider whether or not to forward an impeachment petition to the Senate well before the 2016 legislative regular session had adjourned.
The Speaker of the House though then was State Representative Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) who was facing his own ethics scandal. Hubbard and his cronies in the House leadership wanted to prevent that motion from ever coming to the House floor, so the House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Mac McCutcheon (R-Capshaw), wasted weeks of the legislative session while the articles of Impeachment languished in the Rules Committee instead of being assigned to a committee for study. With only four legislative days left the leadership then forced through a bill changing all the rules for impeachment and demanding that the Bentley impeachment adhere to the arbitrary made up new rules, instead of being grandfathered in under the old rules. Showing that there was a demand for impeachment among the members of the House, Henry was able to meet the new standards and get 23 signatures of members for articles of impeachment to move forward. The articles of impeachment were referred to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia).
The committee is composed of Republicans: Jim Hill, Mike Ball, Paul Beckman, Dickie Drake, Allen Farley, David Faulkner, Matt Fridy, Mike Holmes and Phillip Pettus and Democrats: Thad McClammy, Marcel Black, Merika Coleman‑Evans, Christopher John England and Juandalynn Givan.
On Friday, June 10 a jury in Lee County removed Speaker Hubbard from this, or any other, process involving State business when it found Hubbard guilty of 12 felony violations of the Alabama Ethics Law. Gov. Bentley was a witness for the prosecution in that three week trial. Speaker Pro Tem Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) is now the Speaker of the House and will be Speaker through 2018 unless the House Republican Caucus decides it wants to proceed differently moving forward.
On Wednesday, according to Zeigler, the House Judiciary Committee adopted rules of procedure, agreed to conduct a search for an attorney called a “special counsel,” and agreed to set up subcommittees. But it did not set a second meeting date and will not do so until all these preliminary tasks are competed and reported back.
Zeigler said, “The committee set up an awkward bureaucracy that will be a long, hard road to travel. The citizens of Alabama are weary of the Bentley problems. They want the air cleared on the Bentley administration soon.”
Muriel Spearman Farley, he wife of Rep. Allen Farley said on social media. “Allen spent the morning in Montgomery in a House Judiciary committee meeting. After almost three hours the committee adopted Rules of Procedure to address Articles of Impeachment . They now will move forward with subcommittee assignments to fully investigate all evidence in the Impeachment proceedings directed at Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. The governor’s counsel has notified the committee chair requesting that Allen and two other committee members recuse themselves from the committee. Allen and the other two were three of the 23 who signed the Articles of Impeachment. Allen also delivered a letter to Alabama AG Luther Strange September 01, 2015 asking that the AG’s office investigate the rumors of Governor Bentley’s improper conduct that were circulating. Allen made it clear this morning he would NOT recuse himself. This was quite a morning.”
According to media reports, attorneys for Gov. Bentley (R) also demanded that they be given the right to cross examine any witnesses in the House. This would be highly irregular as they would already have that power in the Senate trial if, and when, the House forwarded an actual impeachment resolution to the Senate. The Senate would then hold an actual trial and decide guilt as well as the appropriate punishment, if any.
Zeigler said, “The impeachment investigation will not report its results to the full House until February, 2017, when the Regular Session starts. The people of Alabama do not want to wait until 2017 to clear the clouds over the governor’s office. They want something done now, or at least in the next few months. I agree.”
Zeigler said, “It is unfair to the taxpayers for their State government to have to operate under a cloud. The Mike Hubbard investigation and legal proceedings took three years. If the Bentley investigation takes that long, his term could be over. This is not acceptable. Justice delayed is justice denied,” Zeigler said.
If the Judiciary Committee ever forwards a recommendation of impeachment of the Governor to the full House and if the full House votes to send that resolution to the Senate and if the Senate finds Bentley guilty and votes to remove Gov. Bentley; then Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey (R) would finish out the remainder of Gov. Bentley’s term, which expires in January 2019.
The matter surrounds an admitted “inappropriate relationship” that the then married Governor had with his still married top political aide Rebekah Caldwell Mason. While moral turpitude was sufficient grounds for impeachment in the 1901 Constitution, the legislature insists that an affair, and Bentley denies that any physicality happened, is not sufficient cause to impeach under today’s standards. There are lingering questions however about just how Mrs. Mason was getting paid for her services and if campaign finance and state ethics laws may have been violated. There is also the highly irregular firing of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Secretary Spencer Collier and almost half a dozen career ALEA officers on the orders of Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason, as well as questions about whether taxpayer dollars were inappropriately used to facilitate the “inappropriate relationship.”
The Alabama Attorney General’s office, the US Department of Justice, and the Alabama Ethics Commission all have separate ongoing investigations into alleged misconduct by Bentley and Mason. A State Auditor’s investigation was effectively shut down, when Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) denied Zeigler’s request to hire an outside counsel.