By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Before hopping on a plane to head to Washington, Gov. Robert Bentley and newly appointed US Sen. Luther Strange attempted to assuage concerns over possible conflicts of interest related to Strange’s appointment.
Bentley announced Thursday that Strange would replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions as Alabama’s next senator after Sessions was confirmed Wednesday night by the US Senate as President Donald Trump’s attorney general.
“I truly believe that Luther has the qualifications and has the qualities that will serve our people well and serve this State well,” Bentley said. “Luther and I have a long history. People think that we don’t talk all the time. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
Bentley told reporters gathered at a press conference in Montgomery that he and Strange have “worked closely” throughout their terms on such items as the 2011 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement and matters of Federal intrusion into State matters.
Immediately following the press conference, Bentley and Strange flew together to Washington, where Strange was sworn in as the newest US Senator. Strange’s ascension to the national stage follows the resignation of Sessions, who served as one of Alabama’s senators for more than two decades.
In choosing Strange — the 63-year-old attorney general frequently referred to as “Big Luther” — Bentley said he wanted someone who would value the 2nd and 10th Amendments and would help spur domestic job creation.
After interviewing 20 candidates and narrowing down his choices to six top contenders, Bentley settled on Strange, a man who ran against and later campaigned with Bentley during the 2010 elections and has been in State politics for years.
But their relationship goes far beyond traveling the State together on campaign stops and passing each other in the halls of the State Capitol. Their relationship, at least for the past year, has been in question.
Related work or a full-blown investigation?
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office under Strange was thought to be conducting an investigation into Bentley’s relationship with former top political aide Rebekah Mason.
With Strange’s appointment, questions remain about what role, if any, the Attorney General’s Office has played in investigating the embattled Governor.
The House Judiciary Committee suspended impeachment proceedings last fall after Strange sent the committee a letter on Nov. 3 informing them of necessary “related work” that his office was conducting. Strange, at the time, said he was concerned that the House’s investigation could have overlapped with one in his office.
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The committee began investigations after the Alabama House passed articles of impeachment against the governor in April 2016. More than a dozen House member signed on to a resolution calling for the investigation after Bentley became entangled in a sex scandal with Mason.
On Wednesday, Strange neither confirmed nor denied an investigation.
“I want to make this clear because I think there have been some misconceptions,” Strange said. “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor. I think it’s actually somewhat unfair to him and unfair to the process.”
When announcing the suspension of the impeachment proceedings, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said the attorney general was conducting a “probe.” At the time, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said the AG was conducting “criminal proceedings.” But it remains unclear whether those criminal proceedings were related to the Governor directly or just his office.
McCutcheon, right off the floor of the House, said he and Jones made their public comments in November after meeting with several leaders from the Attorney General’s office. The group, according to McCutcheon, included Strange, Chief Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin and Special Prosecutions Division Chief Matt Hart, who helped lead the prosecution of former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
“I have not asked questions about that out of respect for the investigation itself. Some of the investigation was involving a grand jury and, therefore, there were grand jury secrecy issues. … We made an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office that they would continue their investigation and, at the proper time, they would notify us, and we would take the report of what they had and then take the information that we had in the Judiciary Committee up to that point and then move forward,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon, despite his comments in the November press release, said the AG’s office never directly said there was a criminal investigation of the governor. The Speaker said he thought it would be best for the Attorney General’s Office to complete their investigation without unintentional interference from the House Committee, which had begun subpoenaing Bentley, Mason and other only weeks before the suspension was announced.
“They didn’t really make any specific indications as to who they were investigating, whether it was criminal in nature, ethics, I don’t know,” he said. “If you look back in my statement that I made, I just said there was an investigation dealing with the governor’s office. I didn’t say anything about the governor himself.”
McCutcheon said the House is still waiting on a response to see what the Attorney General’s Office does, but other representatives right off the floor of the House Thursday said that the impeachment process should continue. Several even described their frustration and disappointment with the appointment announcement.
Despite committee members asking for a vote and calling for impeachment proceedings to resume, Chairman Jones said Thursday that the committee is still in the same position that it was before. Jones said he would wait until a new attorney general is appointed and then reach out to the AG’s office for clarification on the matter.
As far as the request from Strange to pause the investigation, Jones said he believed it had been made in good faith — a little more than a week before the surprising election of Trump and weeks before any talk of Senate appointments.
But he did think the investigation was into Bentley, despite Strange’s recent comments to the contrary.
“There are certain things that law enforcement, no matter what level of law enforcement, that they can’t say because of secrecy laws,” Jone said. “But what I took from it is the only thing we are investigating is Governor Bentley. … That’s my perception. I can’t say beyond that.”
Jones may have even initiated the request, according to new information gathered Thursday. He sent a letter to any investigating agency he “could think of” that might also be investigating Bentley. Strange’s office was the only one to respond, he said.
“We were in a strong position to have this concluded by the end of the year,” Jones said. “But when a request like this comes from the Attorney General’s Office, I think anybody in my position and the position of my committee would have to respond the same way.”
Legislator reaction: “This is Alabama”
Reaction at the State House was swift following Bentley’s announcement of Strange’s appointment.
Many legislators are concerned about the “bad optics” associated with the Governor’s decision to appoint the man who may have been investigating him to one of the highest offices in the country. Several were concerned about the possibility of a scheme involving quid pro quo: Did Bentley appoint Strange to halt an investigation?
“Can you discount that? If we hadn’t had everything that has happened in Alabama over the last couple of years, you might say awe that’s ridiculous,” said Rep. Allen Farley, a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee. “But this is Alabama. We have got to straighten up our act.”
Farley said he wants the impeachment committee investigation to continue.
“Once that resolution starts its movement, … that has to be satisfied,” Farley said.
Others said the investigation should have never stopped, including the man who filed the articles of impeachment in the House, Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle. Henry has been a vocal critic of Bentley since April.
“Within a month of the suspension, the attorney general is interviewing for the US Senate seat to be appointed by the governor is very problematic, for the governor, for the newly appointed senator and for the people of the State of Alabama,” Henry said.
Henry, who doesn’t plan to run for reelection in 2018, said the appointment has furthered the air of corruption in Montgomery. This type of action, he said, was the reason he wants to be done with the Legislature. He feels like he can’t do anything to fix it in Montgomery because “nothing gets done” there.
“It truly breaks my heart to know that we are continuing this avenue, this cycle, of making one bad decision after another as a government,” he said. “I am extremely frustrated. … I have been nothing but a gnat on the windshield. I don’t know that I have made any real difference.”