By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The Alabama House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday demanded Gov. Robert Bentley appear before the committee’s special counsel to deliver testimony for his impeachment investigation.
“As we seek to discharge our constitutional duty with regard to this investigation, we want a clear, truthful record from the Governor and his staff,” said Rep. Mike Jones, House Judiciary Committee chair. “The Committee’s rules authorize our Special Counsel to take this testimony for the Committee, much like a deposition in a civil case.”
In a notice sent Monday, the committee ordered Bentley to appear before special counsel Jackson Sharman in private — without the committee, the press or the public present — to deliver his sworn testimony for the Committee.
Ross Garber, an attorney for the governor’s office, said the committee’s demand is an overreach.
“As we understand it from his press release, the private lawyer hired by the Committee wants to take testimony outside the view of the public and hidden even from members of the Judiciary Committee, who are charged with evaluating the credibility of witnesses,” Garber said.
In the notice sent to Bentley, Sharman set Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 9 a.m. as the preliminary date for the governor’s testimony. They will meet in his office in Birmingham, unless the parties agree to another date, time and location before then.
Garber said the governor’s office is considering the request.
“The Governor’s attorneys are evaluating the lawyer’s requests and will communicate directly, as opposed to using a press releases to grandstand,” Garber said. “In any event, the Governor’s Office will continue to provide information and cooperation to the Judiciary Committee, but will also insist on fairness and due process.”
In addition to Bentley, the committee also ordered David Bryne, the Governor’s chief legal advisor, Wesley Helton, the Governor’s director of legislative affairs, and Zach Lee, the governor’s director of federal and local government affairs, to appear so Sharman can take their testimony at separate times.
The Governor’s testimony is necessary because he hasn’t cooperated with the investigation thus far, Sharman said.
“Although we have not had the transparency and cooperation with the investigation that the Governor promised, the Committee hopes that the Governor will take the opportunity to cooperate in the House’s investigation,” Sharman said Wednesday.
Bentley’s office contends that they have cooperated, turning over 10,000 pages of documents on Oct. 10 as part of an objection to several subpoenas Sharman issued earlier this month. The governor’s attorney said the subpoenas were overly burdensome and too broad.
On Sept. 28, hours before the most recent public meeting of the Judiciary Committee, Bentley’s office delivered more than 1,500 pages of documents requested by the committee — in what they said was an effort to cooperate.
At the time, Sharman said the governor’s office only handed over the documents so they could say they cooperated. When the Governor’s office turned over the documents before the Sept. 28 meeting, the committee was set to approve committee rules allowing for the issuance of subpoenas.
Those rules passed, and earlier this month the committee subpoenaed the Governor.
The question of whether the committee had the constitutional authority to issue those subpoenas or the power to enforce them still remains to be decided. Subpoena power has been one the principal debates of this six-month impeachment investigation .
In March, former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier accused the governor of maintaining an extra-marital affair with Rebekah Mason, one of his top political aides. Collier said the Governor used State funds to do it.
Collier’s accusations came after the Governor fired him over allegations of misusing state funds while he was running ALEA. A Montgomery Special Grand Jury cleared Collier of those charges last week.
The Attorney General said there was “no credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place.” The outright denial of any basis for allegations against Collier has raised serious questions about the intentions behind Bentley’s firing of him.
Bentley placed the former secretary on medical leave in February for problems stemming from a back surgery, but Collier said the governor suspended him for cooperating with Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions investigation into former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, (R–Auburn).
“During the State of the State on Feb. 2, Gov. Bentley praised me and ALEA and said we were the most efficient operation in state government,” Collier said in an exclusive phone interview with APR. “Fifteen days later he put me on medical leave. What happened within those 20 days? I’ll tell you: I cooperated with the Attorney General’s investigation, which as a law enforcement officer I had an obligation to do.”
A leaked ALEA memo detailing an internal investigation into Collier conducted by then-Acting ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler surfaced as part of the several thousand-page document dumps delivered by the governor’s office to the impeachment committee.
That memo — which Collier said was simply a fishing expedition to find a reason to justify his firing — has recently been discredited after several key witnesses recanted their testimony and said investigators falsified their statements.
The accusations against the governor came to light after Bentley fired Collier on March 22, and accused him of breaking the law, which has now been proven untrue. Collier turned on Bentley, whom he said he once regarded as a father figure.
Shortly thereafter, recordings of Bentley’s explicit conversations with Mason surfaced on the internet.
In April, the House of Representatives filed articles of impeachment against the Governor, triggering the investigation by the House Judiciary Committee.
Bentley, despite the recordings, has denied a physical relationship with Mason, but has apologized for “inappropriate comments.”