By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Lawyers for Gov. Robert Bentley, his former top political aide Rebekah Mason and a pro-Bentley 501(c)(4) dark-money group called the Alabama Council for Excellent Government filed three separate motions on Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit against them.
Wendall Ray Lewis, the former Head of the Governor’s Security Detail and Chief of the Office of Dignitary Protection, filed a lawsuit against the Governor, ACEGOV and Mason before Thanksgiving last month.
The wrongful termination and violation of privacy lawsuit alleged Bentley and Mason defamed Lewis, pushed him into early, involuntary retirement and interfered with job opportunities after he left State government — all because Lewis would not help the two carry out their affair.
Lewis said in his lawsuit — which included dozens of pages recounting months of the alleged affair and his final days in the Governor’s office — that he tried to help Bentley break off the affair on more than one occasion. Lewis also said Bentley had him drive around the State using State vehicles to facilitate the affair.
Throughout the final months of his job, Lewis said he warned the Governor about using State resources like vehicles, personnel and planes to facilitate his affair with Mason.
The Governor’s motion filed Wednesday requests the Court dismiss the case in its entirety. Bentley’s attorneys claim Lewis has made up lies to profit from the media storm surrounding Bentley and Mason’s alleged affair; therefore, it has “no place in an Alabama court.”
“In an effort to extract even more money from the State, he (Lewis) now is trying, through this lawsuit and a media campaign, to capitalize on false rumors and to fabricate new ones about the State official (Bentley) whose physical safety he was charged with protecting,” Bentley’s attorneys wrote.
Lewis’ lawsuit claims the Governor lied to the media about accusations that Lewis had overused overtime pay without permission, which sullied his name. Eventually, Lewis said, Bentley and Mason forced him to retire early and, after his retirement, worked to impede future job opportunities.
Lewis’ lawsuit seeks full compensation for the financial damages he said he endured. Bentley’s motion today asserts the requests for monetary compensation should be dismissed as well.
“Lewis’s case is devoid of legal merit, and he has only highlighted that reality by choosing to file a 47-page complaint — one filled with false, scandalous, and impertinent allegations that have no relevance to his actual requests for relief,” Bentley’s attorneys wrote. “He is trying to take advantage of untrue rumors, to disrupt the business of State government, and to harass the defendants. The law precludes Lewis from abusing the legal system in that way.”
Mason and ACEGOV, among other defendants, are also included in the lawsuit, which last month ignited a firestorm thanks to Lewis’ detailed account of the alleged affair between Mason and Bentley. Lewis said Mason and ACEGOV were involved in his wrongful termination by transmitting what he said were “lies” about his overtime pay.
ACEGOV’s attorneys Wednesday said in their three-page motion — which was filed separately by different attorneys from Mason and Bentley but on the same day — that Lewis failed to implicate ACEGOV in his lawsuit. They said they failed to mention the 501(c)(4) on any claims that could actually be tried.
They allege the lawsuit is “without substantial justification” for including ACEGOV and that the suit is being used to embarrass the defendants included.
“Ironically, while [Lewis] bemoans the reputational damage he has supposedly suffered, he shows no regard for reputations of the numerous individuals he named in his complaint for no other purpose than to humiliate and embarrass them by association with this ‘scandal,'” ACEGOV’s attorney wrote.
ACEGOV requested to be removed from the lawsuit and compensation be awarded for their attorneys’ fees and other costs that have been incurred thanks to Lewis’ lawsuit. Mason’s request was similar to Bentley’s and ACEGOV’s.
Mason’s attorneys requested the judge dismiss all of the four counts seeking compensation or damages from Mason. Alternatively, she asked for the lawsuit to be entirely dismissed. Mason denied any wrongdoing but said some aspects of the case are time-barred because they were filed more than two years after the last time Mason would have been involved with the Governor or Lewis’ time working for him.
Mason’s attorneys claim that Lewis was a public official and thus must show that Mason demonstrated actual malice in the defamation case, according to precedent. The claims about Lewis’ overtime pay were not defamatory, were not false and could not be “construed as highly offensive to anyone,” Mason’s attorney said.
In his lawsuit, Lewis joined a chorus of other former Bentley staffers and insiders, including former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier, who have alleged that Bentley maintained a physical affair with Mason, not just the emotional affair the two claim.
Recordings of a sexual phone call between Mason and Bentley surfaced earlier this year just days after Collier was fired from ALEA in March 2016 and first publicly alleged a relationship between the Governor and Mason. Just a month later in April, lawmakers filed articles of impeachment against Bentley in the House.
The House Judiciary Committee began investigations later, but that investigation has been suspended at the request of Attorney General Luther Strange’s office. Strange’s office said interviews being conducted by the committee were overlapping with an investigation of their own.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Jones and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon have said the AG’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the Governor.
Bentley has denied any wrongdoing and the existence of a physical affair, but has apologized for his “inappropriate” conversations with Mason. Mason resigned from State government in March after Collier’s allegations and the surfacing of the recordings.
Collier and Lewis have both alleged the Governor used State resources to carry out a personal vendetta against them because they both refused to help Bentley and Mason facilitate their affair. Collier also has his own lawsuit against the Governor.
Both lawsuits and Wednesday’s motions are still pending.
Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.
“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.
Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.
It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.
Tuberville said he would ban that practice.
A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.
President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.
The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.
Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.
House passes General Fund Budget
By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.
The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.
Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”
Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.
The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.
Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.
Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.
The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.
Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.
The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.
Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.
The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.
In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.
SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.
Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”
State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”
The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.
The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.
The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.
The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.
Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.
SB185 passed 101-0.
Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.
Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1 for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.
SB215 passed the House 87-0.
The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.
State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.
SB231 passed 87-2.
The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.
The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.
The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.
Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.
Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.
Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.
Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.
Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.
Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.
The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.
Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.
Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.
Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.
Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.
Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.
Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.
The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.
Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.
It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.
Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.
The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.
Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.
Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.
Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.
- Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)
Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.
Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.
The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.
Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.