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Governor renews immunity claims in former ALEA secretary’s lawsuit

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Gov. Robert Bentley last week reiterated claims that he, as a constitutional officer of the State of Alabama, has immunity from civil action, especially from the lawsuit filed last year by former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier.

Collier filed a defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit last year after he was fired by Bentley in March.

Bentley’s filing last week asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit against him and current ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler, who stepped into the role after Collier’s termination. According to Bentley’s attorneys, he is immune from civil action because of his role as a constitutional officer.

State law prevents plaintiffs from bringing money-damages lawsuits against constitutional officers of the State of Alabama, even if those lawsuits are brought against the officers in their individual capacities, Bentley’s attorneys said.

Bentley’s attorneys first filed an argument last June outlining their claims of immunity for the Governor last June.

This month’s filing is a response to an amended complaint filed by Collier and his attorneys in December, which added two new defendants to the complaint, ALEA attorney Michael Robinson and special agent April Bickhaus, but essentially avoided Bentley’s claims of immunity.

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In the amended complaint, Collier doubled down on his previous allegations, accusing the governor, Mason and Stabler, and several other entities related to the governor, of defaming him, violating his privacy and firing him without cause.

Collier’s attorneys believe Bentley can be sued in his capacity as Collier’s former boss, but Bentley’s attorneys argue that his role as Collier’s boss falls under the purvue of his position as a constitutional officer of the State of Alabama. The immunity claims have not yet been ruled on and the lawsuit has mostly stalled because former Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene Reese recently retired.

The Governor’s lawyers said Collier’s claims are meritless and outline nothing for which the State could grant relief.

“In the more than seven months since Governor Bentley and Secretary Stabler filed their motions seeking dismissal of Collier’s complaint, Collier has failed to file a response defending his claims. Instead, he now has doubled down on his untenable theories, filing an amended complaint with allegations that are just as meritless as his old ones,” Bentley’s attorneys wrote this month.

Bentley fired Collier for “possible misuse of State funds” on March 22, 2016. The allegations originated from an ALEA internal inquiry conducted by then-interim ALEA Secretary Stabler and his team while Collier was on medical leave for back problems in February.

Collier says Bentley fired him for cooperating with the Attorney General’s investigation into former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. Once he was fired, Collier claims Bentley developed a personal vendetta against him, which pushed the Governor to use ALEA as a political tool to defame him.

“Bentley had and continues to have a pattern and practice of using ALEA equipment, facilities and labor for his own personal reasons including using and attempting to use ALEA Law Enforcement Officers to try to dig up dirt on people that Bentley disliked or became upset with,” Collier’s attorneys wrote in the amended complaint.

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A Special Grand Jury, impaneled to investigate Collier on the charges of misuse of State funds, cleared the former secretary last year of any criminal violations. There was “no credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place,” according to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.

Collier said the attorney general’s findings in his case — findings that essentially said the ALEA internal inquiry was baseless — were just more evidence that Bentley was trying to use ALEA resources to defame him. Collier’s lawsuit claims Robinson, while working as an attorney for ALEA, “intimidated and coerced witnesses to falsely accuse Collier of wrongful and inappropriate conduct.” Several of those allegations, including one of sexual assault, have been denied outright or retracted by the individuals quoted in the internal inquiry.

“On numerous occasions between March 22, 2016, and October 20, 2016, Bentley and his staff members at his directions, publically accused Collier of committing crimes knowing these accusations were false,” Collier said in his amended complaint.

After Bentley fired him, Collier accused the Governor, who had been divorced by his wife in 2015, of engaging in an extra-marital affair with Mason. Shortly after Collier made the allegations, recordings surfaced of Bentley having a lewd telephone conversation with Mason.

Collier’s lawsuit is not the only legal action Bentley is facing in the aftermath of Collier’s firing and his subsequent allegations against the Governor. Former top security officer Wendall Ray Lewis filed a lawsuit in November echoing Collier’s allegations that the governor sought retribution against the people who didn’t support his affair with Mason.

In addition to the civil filings, both Federal and State law enforcement officials have reportedly launched investigations into Bentley, but recent comments by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange put those assumptions into question.

In April, several members of the Alabama House filed articles of impeachment against the governor after evidence surfaced suggesting Bentley may have used State money and resources to facilitate the affair with Mason. The House Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with investigating the governor for a possible House impeachment, held several hearings last year and even subpoenaed the Governor.

Those hearings and the entire House investigation were suspended in October at the request of the attorney general, who said his office was conducting “related interviews.” Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said at the time that the attorney general was conducting a separate criminal investigation of the governor.

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In December, Strange said his office never confirmed a Bentley criminal investigation. Since then, several officials, including one member of the House Judiciary Committee, have called for a reinvigorated House impeachment investigation.

“I believe the committee needs to restart its work and resolve this issue already,” said State Rep. Paul Beckman on Inside Alabama Politics. “I feel like the Governor, possibly with help from the attorney general, is trying to run out the clock on this thing.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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