By Chip Brownlee
The Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — The House Judiciary Committee wasted no time this week in issuing dozens of pages of subpoenas in the impeachment investigation into embattled Gov. Robert Bentley’s alleged affair and misuse of State funds.
Among those subpoenaed by the committee: Bentley himself; his former top political aide and alleged mistress, Rebekah Mason; Bentley’s gubernatorial campaign and others.
Whether or not the Governor will be forced to comply at the risk of contempt is another question entirely.
The committee ordered documents and records from five others as well, including Mason’s husband, her communications firm RCM Communications and a dark-money group called the Alabama Council for Excellent Government.
They have until Monday, October 10, to comply with the subpoenas, Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones said.
Jack Sharman, the committee’s special counsel, requested the subpoenas from the committee this week and they were approved Thursday afternoon. Sharman said he could serve them within days.
Despite concerns that the subpoenas are unenforceable and possibly not worth the paper they’re printed on, Jones, a Republican from Andalusia, said the committee is ready to act if Bentley and friends don’t comply.
“If they fail to comply, we will take appropriate action,” Jones said.
The requests within the subpoenas themselves are far-reaching. The committee ordered the Governor to turn over cell phone records between himself and Mason, her husband, former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier, ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler and Ray Lewis.
The committee also wants communications concerning the dark money group, RCM Communications and even conversations with or about Deputy Attorneys General Matt Hart and Mike Duffy over former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s ethics trial.
Sharman appears to want to craft a detailed picture of Bentley and Mason’s relationship. From Mason, the subpoenas request complete documentation of her daily schedule from her time with Bentley over five years — 2011 up until March of this year.
In investigating Bentley’s stewardship of State funds, Mason’s finances will come under scrutiny as well. If she complies with the subpoenas, the committee will have her federal and state income taxes from 2011 onward, along with statements from any bank account related to the investigation.
They’ll also be digging into all of her cell phone records.
These just break the surface of the 65-page requests. What the documents will show if the committee happens to get them is anyone’s guess.
The real question is whether or not Bentley, Mason and others will comply with Sharman’s subpoenas. The Governor’s attorney, Ross Garber, said Tuesday he doesn’t believe the committee has the power to issue subpoenas, much less enforce them.
“The Judiciary Committee does not have subpoena authority,” Garber said Tuesday. “There’s no statute granting it. There’s not constitutional provision granting it. This committee has no more subpoena authority than you do. … We’ll certainly look at them and evaluate them.”
And even members of the committee seemed perplexed by the notion.
“We’re about to send subpoenas out, and we don’t know if we can enforce them,” said Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.
Birmingham Democratic Rep. Juandalynn Givan grilled Sharman at the committee meeting Tuesday as well.
“We’re creating a power that we do not have,” Givan said. “We’re creating a contempt power. We’re creating a subpoena power.”
But Sharman seemed confident. He said no state supreme court in the United States has denied any legislature’s ability to issue and enforce subpoenas, and he believes the Alabama Constitution implies the Legislature has the power.
“I’m convinced you do, and I’m convinced the House does,” Sharman said.
There are two avenues, Sharman said, that the committee could go about enforcing those subpoenas. First, they could send the case to a circuit court and let them find the witness in contempt, or they could simply vote to find the person in contempt themselves.
What would happen then, no one knows, because a court would have to enforce the contempt with an order.
After being fired as the top law enforcement officer in the state, former ALEA Secretary Stephen Collier accused Bentley of maintaining an extra-marital affair with one of his top aides, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, and using state funds and equipment — such as state aircraft — to do it.
Reports suggest Bentley took Mason on trips to Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.
He’s also accused of ordering Collier to subvert the criminal investigation by Attorney General Luther Strange’s office into Hubbard’s ethics violations, which is why Hart and Duffy find themselves listed in the subpoena papers.
The accusations all came to light after Bentley fired Collier, and Collier turned on him and recordings of Bentley’s explicit conversations surfaced the same exact day on the internet.
Bentley, despite the recordings, has denied a physical relationship with his aide, but has apologized for “inappropriate comments.” Since the audio recordings surfaced this spring, Bentley has become known popularly as the “love gov.”
In April, Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican from Hartselle, gathered enough signatures from House members and filed articles of impeachment against Bentley. Since then, the impeachment investigation has inched along.
The Judiciary Committee will continue investigation, and if they conclude Bentley is guilty of wrongdoing, the members can recommend impeachment to the House. It will likely take more than 60 votes in the House to impeach him.
Then, the Senate would hold a trial to determine whether to remove him from office.
Only two other governors in the United States have been removed from office in the past 85 years following an impeachment. Fifteen others have been impeached, but weren’t removed from office.
The last time Alabama Legislature tried to impeach a constitutional officer was in 1915 when proceedings were held against then-Secretary of State John Purifoy. Other than that, there is no precedent, and Jones has said attempts to consult records from the proceedings a century ago were no help.
In combination with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s judicial ethics trial and former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s felony convictions, Bentley’s impeachment would complete a triad of scandal in Alabama politics.