By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Newly appointed Senator Luther Strange’s departure for Washington on Thursday leaves a vacancy at the top of Alabama’s Attorney General’s Office, begging the question: Who will replace Strange, and what will he or she do about the investigation into Gov. Robert Bentley, if there ever was one?
Chief Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin, who has been in the office since 2015, will take over as the acting attorney general until a permanent replacement is selected. There is no timeline currently for selecting a permanent replacement, Bentley said at the press conference announcing Strange’s appointment, but he expects to begin interviews as soon as tomorrow.
Martin, who may be a contender herself, is a former US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and had a heavy hand in the felony corruption investigation of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) who was convicted of 12 felony ethics violations last summer.
With her new responsibilities as acting attorney general, Martin may oversee an investigation into Bentley, including empaneled special grand juries in Montgomery and Lee Counties, according to APR reports.
“I’m going to be optimistic,” said Rep. Allen Farley, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which was charged with investigating Bentley for possible impeachment. “If Ms. Martin does take that role, then she is a person of the highest integrity. The investigations that were started when Strange was Alabama’s attorney general will not be deterred.”
Martin, Strange and Special Prosecutions Division Chief Matt Hart became known as a corruption-busting trio thanks to several successful ethics investigations under their leadership, including the prosecution of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, and a suspected investigation into the Birmingham Water Works Board.
Aside from Martin, three names have been confirmed as possible top contenders for the job. Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall and Fayette County District Attorney Chris McCool, who are both long-time prosecutors and past presidents of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, are reportedly under consideration by the Governor.
APR has also confirmed that Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former deputy attorney general, has also spoken with Bentley informally about the possibility of being appointed as Alabama’s next attorney general.
“What you need is a manager for that office,” Ward said Thursday. “You need someone who understands state government and is able to supervise all the different divisions.”
Ward worked in the Attorney General’s Office after law school and had his own private practice law firm. But the senator ran into trouble in summer 2015 after being arrested for driving under the influence. He pled guilty, entered a pretrial diversion program, and the charges were later dropped.
“The most important thing there is to own it,” Ward said. “Sometimes you make mistakes in life. Everybody has made them. I’m the first one to say I own that. I believe in recovery. I’m not proud of it, but it’s part of life.”
The first question that will be asked to the next attorney general nomination will be whether they plan to recuse themselves from any investigation involving the Governor. Ward said Thursday that he would recuse himself if he were offered the job, allowing career prosecutors in the AG’s office to handle the case without his interference.
“I think you have to,” Ward said. “I don’t think you could do that without a cloud hanging over the office. It’s going to be very delicate.”
Bentley, during his press conference at the Alabama Department of Archives and History on Thursday, said that he wouldn’t ask any potential attorney general to recuse themselves, despite any appearances of conflicts of interest.
“I will ask the next attorney general to be the best attorney general they can possibly be and to uphold the laws of this State,” Bentley said. “I do not ask for anything other than that because it is a constitutional office different than mine. I will ask them to do their job and uphold the laws of this State and also serve the people of this State. That’s all I will ever ask.”