By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Gov. Robert Bentley on Monday suggested retaliation for leaks to The Alabama Political Reporter about an ongoing Ethics Commission investigation surrounding his relationship with Rebekah Mason, one of his former top political advisers.
Bentley, speaking to reporters in Montgomery at the winter meeting of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, said that the person who shared with APR had broken the law by giving details to the media concerning an active ethics investigation.
“We need to look into this,” the Governor told reporters. “We need to investigate this. This is something that should have never happened. There are grand jury secrecy laws that cover this. I’m not going to comment on it because I’m not going to break the law. But somebody already has already done that, and we need to look into that.”
On Monday, APR reported that special agents of the Alabama Ethics Commission are nearing completion of a probe into possible violations of State ethics laws by Bentley and Mason, who were accused last year of maintaining an extramarital affair and using State resources to do so.
Bentley said Monday that he was aware of “some” State investigations into his office, according to The Decatur Daily.
Reliable sources close to the investigation, who spoke with APR on the condition of anonymity, said Mason and Bentley recently received summonses to appear before Ethics Commission investigative agents, according to the report published by editor-in-chief Bill Britt. The summonses come as grand juries remain empaneled in Montgomery County and Lee County, according to APR reports.
Bentley told reporters that the sources had violated the law because Ethics Commission investigations are covered under a provision referencing the State’s grand jury secrecy laws. Those laws, he said, prevent them from disclosing any information ascertained during the investigation and proceedings.
Britt believed Bentley was simply trying to change the subject.
“At the Governor’s press gaggle, he never once refuted the accuracy of APR’s report,” Britt said yesterday. “He simply changed the subject. Bentley pointed a finger at someone else, claiming they did something wrong. This is very reminiscent of Mike Hubbard defense. Bentley really needs to find a dictionary if he believes he has done nothing unethical. He may not have done anything illegal, but to say, as he has many times, that he has done nothing immoral or unethical shows the depth of his denial.”
The Attorney General’s Office on Monday denied comment on whether the Ethics Commission is covered under Alabama’s grand jury secrecy laws, instead directing questions to the Ethics Commission director, Tom Albritton, who was also not available for any immediate comment.
Commission agents have previously spoken with State Auditor Jim Ziegler and Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay — who filed complaints against the Governor, Mason and her husband last year — cautioning them to refrain from speaking to the media or otherwise discussing the matters under investigation.
They said witnesses are prohibited from speaking about the case, citing sections of the Code of Alabama that make grand jury proceedings confidential and other sections that apply the same rules to Ethics Commission investigations.
Section 25 of The Code of Alabama states that “Upon the commencement of any investigation, the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure as applicable to the grand jury process promulgated by the Alabama Supreme Court shall apply and shall remain in effect until the complaint is dismissed or disposed of in some other manner.”
The rules apply to “all investigatory activities taken by the director, the commission, or a member thereof, staff, employees, or any person engaged by the commission in response to a complaint filed with the commission and to all proceedings relating thereto before the commission.”
Bentley has apologized for an inappropriate relationship he maintained with Mason since the scandal broke in March 2016 after former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier accused the Governor and Mason of an affair.
Later, recordings were released of a lewd phone conversation between Bentley and Mason.
In addition to the allegations of an affair, evidence later arose suggesting Bentley might have misused State funds and resources to facilitate the affair. Two civil wrongful termination lawsuits also accuse Bentley and Mason of using the Governor’s office and other State resources to get back at individuals who didn’t support their relationship.
Last April, Alabama representatives began the process of impeaching Bentley, filing a resolution for articles of impeachment in the House. Over the next several months, the House Judiciary Committee — which was tasked with investigating the allegations against the Governor — held several hearings to establish operating procedure and had even begun subpoenaing the Governor, Mason and others — albeit to little avail.
The impeachment investigation ended in November with a request from Attorney General Luther Strange, who said his office was conducting separate related work that could have overlapped with the House’s investigation. Some, including State Auditor Jim Ziegler, have accused Strange of obstructing justice by halting the House investigation.
Though Strange neither confirmed nor denied an investigation by his office, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones seemed to think, at the time, that there was a “criminal investigation” into Bentley.
Through it all, Bentley and Mason have denied any legal or ethical wrongdoing and have maintained that there was never a physical affair. On Monday, Bentley reiterated his claims of innocence.
“There’s been a lot of rumors and innuendos and political foolishness that has been going on in the last year,” Bentley said. “Nobody in my office, past or present, has ever done anything illegal or unethical. I have never done anything illegal or unethical. And I am eager to say that, I just have not had the opportunity to do that.”