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Judiciary Committee waiting for OK from Strange to continue Bentley impeachment

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—One person is holding up the impeachment investigation into Gov. Robert Bentley.

On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chairman Mike Jones told reporters that his committee would not continue an impeachment probe into the Governor until Attorney General Luther Strange gives them the all clear.

“Whenever the Attorney General has reached a point that we are able to resume, we will resume,” Jones said. “I’ve always said, and I will continue to say, we are going to finish what we started. I’m just not able to say when it will be.”

The Committee, which was charged with probing the Governor’s relationship with his former top political aide Rebekah Mason, suspended its investigation in November after Strange sent the Committee a letter informing them that their investigation may overlap with separate “related work” that his office was or is conducting.

“I’m not going to try to rush the Attorney General’s Office,” Jones said. “They have reasons for their request.”

Prior to the suspension, the Committee had conducted preliminary hearings, established procedures and had even issued subpoenas to Bentley, Mason and others close to them, but with little success.

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The Governor and Mason both refused to comply with those subpoenas, though Bentley did turn over thousands of pages of documents to the committee in a large document dump. That dump included travel information, receipts and was said to include an ALEA probe into former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, who had been fired in March for what Bentley said was “possible misuse of State funds.”

Collier was eventually vindicated in October when a Montgomery Special Grand Jury cleared him of any wrongdoing. Strange said in a statement at the time that there was nothing to warrant a probe into Collier in the first place.

Bentley has apologized for an inappropriate relationship he maintained with Mason since the scandal broke in March 2016 after Collier accused the Governor and Mason of an affair. Days 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, one by Collier and one by former top security officer Wendall Ray Lewis, 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.

Collier accused Bentley of firing him for having cooperated, against the Governor’s orders, with the State investigation into former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. Last April, Alabama representatives began the process of impeaching Bentley, filing a resolution issuing articles of impeachment in the House.

Even if the Attorney General gives the Committee the OK to go ahead with their investigation, some members of the committee aren’t so sure that it should actually happen. Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, is one of those people. Givan sponsored Amendment Six, which defined the number of Senate votes needed to impeach an elected official.

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“If we’re going to deal with issues of impeachment, somebody needs to be responsible enough to craft the proper language that will be the law of the land in regards to impeachment,” Givan said. “If the AG’s office does say that there are not enough findings, what are we doing?”

One of Givan’s biggest concerns, she said, is wasting taxpayer money on an investigation that could end up resulting in lawsuits and other legal action against members of the Legislature.

“We have no subpoena power,” she said. “We can’t hold anyone in contempt. We would only be wasting money to put our own selves in a posture that we could be sued in our capacity as legislators and possibly as individuals.”

The Committee has no authority to seek discovery and no structure on how they handle evidentiary findings, Givan said. If the FBI and other State law enforcement bodies have investigations into the Governor, then the Committee should let them run their courses, she said.

“I’m missing something,” Givan said. “There are too many people on this committee that have clear conflicts of interest because of their relationship with the governor or because they so heavily supported the House’s articles of impeachment. I think we need to leave it alone.”

On Monday, APR reported that the Alabama Ethics Commission is wrapping up a probe from their office into Bentley as well. 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.

Strange has neither confirmed nor denied any investigation by his office, but House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Chairman Jones seemed to think, at the time, that there was a “criminal investigation” into Bentley.

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Some, including State Auditor Jim Ziegler, have accused Strange — who is a top contender to be Bentley’s appointee to replace US Sen. Jeff Sessions — of obstructing justice by halting the House investigation. Strange met with Bentley in December about the possible appointment.

Bentley will announce his Senate appointment next week if Sessions is confirmed to be the next US Attorney General. If Strange is appointed, that will leave a vacancy at the head of the Attorney General’s office, and Bentley will get to appoint that replacement as well, who may be responsible for overseeing an investigation into him.

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.”

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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