By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
In light of recent comments by Attorney General Luther Strange casting doubt on the existence of a criminal investigation of Gov. Robert Bentley, State Auditor Jim Ziegler is calling on the House Judiciary Committee to resume its impeachment hearings.
“It is obvious that the session will start without a report from your committee on impeachment,” Ziegler said. “That failure was caused by the obstruction of the impeachment investigation by Attorney General Luther Strange.”
The Alabama House Judiciary Committee suspended their investigation into the possible impeachment of Bentley in early November after the Committee received a letter from Strange.
“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,” Strange wrote in the letter on Nov. 3.
At the time, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said in a statement that the Attorney General’s Office was conducting a separate investigation that could conflict with the House’s investigation.
Following the Attorney General’s request, the House’s impeachment investigation was suspended. The letter never specifically stated that there was a separate criminal investigation into Bentley, but Jones, and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, seemed to think there was.
McCutcheon at the time said he wanted to allow the “criminal proceedings to run their course.”
“I believe that moving forward with the impeachment hearings while there is an active criminal investigation would put a number of parties in a difficult position,” McCutcheon said.
Last month, doubt was cast on Jones’ and McCutcheon’s statements after the attorney general spoke with AL.com on the matter. When asked by reporter Mike Cason about a possible conflict of interest arising if Strange were to take a Senate appointment from Bentley despite an investigation, Strange said his office never said the Governor was under investigation in the first place.
“We typically don’t comment, but we certainly have never said that,” Strange told AL.com
On April 5, three Alabama representatives began the process of impeaching Bentley, filing a resolution for articles of impeachment in the House. Since then, the House Judiciary Committee held several hearings to establish operating procedure and had even begun subpoenaing the governor, albeit to little avail, but all that ended with Strange’s request.
Bentley has apologized numerous times for an inappropriate relationship he maintained with one of his senior political advisers Rebekah Mason since the scandal broke in late March after former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier accused the Governor and Mason of the affair. Later, lewd recordings were released of a phone conversation between Bentley and Mason.
In addition to the allegations of an affair, evidence later arose suggesting Bentley may have misused State funds to facilitate the affair. Two civil wrongful termination lawsuits also accuse Bentley and Mason of using the Governor’s office to get back at individuals who didn’t support their relationship.
In November, President-elect Donald Trump announced he would be appointing Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the next US Attorney General. That move, if Sessions is confirmed by the Senate this month, will create a vacancy in one of Alabama’s Senate seats, the short-term replacement for which Bentley will be responsible for appointing.
Strange is reportedly a top contender for the appointment. The Governor’s office confirmed late last month that Strange did meet with the Governor about possibly being appointed to Sessions’ vacated Senate seat.
The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the existence of an investigation and refused to clarify Strange’s statements from December.
“At this time, the Attorney General’s Office has no comment,” his office said.