By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
An exchange of letters between Attorney General Luther Strange and House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Mike Jones, along with a subsequent press release announcing the suspension of hearings into the Articles of Impeachment against Governor Robert Bentley, seemed straight forward back in November.
It is a fact that Jones’ committee was investigating Bentley, and the November letter from Strange seemed to confirm the Attorney General’s office was doing the same and Strange was concerned about the dual probes interfering with each other.
On December 22, however, Strange told reporters, in advance of his meeting with Bentley regarding the possibility of an appointment to the US Senate, that he never said his office was investigating the Governor (and that is technically accurate).
Did Jones, a smart and very thorough attorney, misunderstand Strange’s intentions?
Was Strange’s letter to Jones ill-conceived and vague?
Did Bentley’s alleged dangerous liaison with Rebekah Caldwell Mason not rise to an indictable offense?
Was Bentley’s campaign to defame the State’s former top law enforcement officer, Spencer Collier, an abuse of power that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?
Did Jones jump the gun with his press release?
Strange, on November 3rd, nearly five months after the fact, responded to a June 7 letter from Jones stating, “In your letter of June 7, 2016, you informed me that the work of the House Judiciary Committee and the investigative work of my office might intersect with certain issues and witnesses. I appreciate your willingness to efficiently and effectively communicate with my office.”
Here in the first paragraph, Strange implies he understands Jones’ concern that his committee’s work and that of the Attorney General’s may overlap with certain issues and witnesses.
In the next paragraph, Strange writes, “At this time, I believe it would be prudent and beneficial to delay the work of the House Judiciary Committee.”
Why delay the work of the committee if Bentley is not in the Attorney General’s crosshairs?
Strange continues, “I respectfully request that the Committee cease active interviews and investigation until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed.”
This implies the “necessary related work,” has to do with the subject of the Judiciary Committee, which is Bentley. Strange, it appears, asks for the committee to stand down until he can report on the findings or activities of his office’s investigation.
In July, Gov. Bentley and others testified before a Montgomery County Special Grand Jury impaneled at the request of Special Prosecutions Division Chief Matt Hart.
On October 20th, that Grand Jury found that the investigation into former ALEA Chief Collier and Bentley’s public comments had ‘no credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place,’ according to a statement from Strange.
Two weeks later, Strange sent the letter to Jones asking the committee to cease its work until he could report more on what his office was doing. Approximately one month later, on December 22nd, Strange responded to a reporter’s question saying he never said there was an investigation into Bentley.
Many of the witnesses that appeared before the Montgomery Special Grand Jury were directly linked to the accusations made against Collier. Others, however, including former staffers and Bentley’s former body man, Ray Lewis, were not.
All indicators at the time seemed to point to Bentley being under investigation. But being under investigation and being indicted are worlds apart, as any prosecutor knows. A former prosecutor, speaking on background, said, “Bentley may have abused his power, but can you prove that to a jury?”
Ferrying an alleged mistress in a State airplane or spending an evening in Vegas with her while making Canadian singer Celine Dion an honorary Alabamian may be tacky, but it may not be a crime, according to the former prosecutor. Likewise, he believes Hart may simply not yet have a strong enough case to seek probable cause before a grand jury.
The Special Grand Juries in Montgomery, Jefferson, and Lee County remain impaneled. And while they do, politicos can keep themselves busy with one of their favorite guessing games: connecting the dots.