MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Several Alabama lawmakers are considering an alternative route to get around the stalled House Judiciary Committee charged with investigating and recommending possible charges for impeachment against Gov. Robert Bentley.
The plan, which could begin as early as next week, would bring articles of impeachment before the full House. At that point, a majority of the House members could vote to issue a charge against the governor, sending the process on to the state Senate, which would function as a court to try the governor for possible removal.
Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Cullman, and Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, began circulating a new impeachment resolution on Tuesday to update charges against the governor and serve as a catalyst to get the Judiciary Committee to resume impeachment hearings.
The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
The resolution — sponsored by the two representatives who had previously opposed impeachment — was making waves on the House floor as members were debating a separate piece of legislation intended to urge Alabama’s congressional delegation to support President Donald Trump.
Harbison and Shedd’s impeachment resolution would have added new charges to a resolution passed last year. The new charges allege Bentley illegally used campaign funds to pay his former top aide’s legal fees and that he received an improper reimbursement from the Republican Governor’s Association.
For Shedd and Harbison, Bentley’s decision to appoint Attorney General Luther Strange as Alabama’s next U.S. Senator was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Appointing the man who was thought to be investigating the governor’s office is bad optics — it looks like quid pro quo, a this-for-that agreement, they said.
“I’m not doing this for me. I don’t like the stink,” Harbison said. “The problem is that we have a Judiciary Committee that is on hold due to a request from an attorney general that is no longer in office that was appointed to the United States Senate by the governor. It just sounds terrible.”
Bentley, who was accused last year of maintaining an extramarital affair with Rebekah Mason and using state funds to do so, has denied any wrongdoing and said that his affair with Mason wasn’t physical.
He has called the House effort to impeach him “political grandstanding.”
Ross Garber, an attorney for the Governor’s Office, criticized the new efforts Tuesday.
“Alabama law requires that any impeachment proceedings follow a strict procedure and afford the governor due process at every stage,” Garber said. “Under the Alabama Constitution, impeachment would itself nullify an election, even before any trial in the Senate. There is perhaps no graver act in this state’s constitutional democracy.”
Confusion at the State House
At first, it appeared Harbison’s effort to reinvigorate the impeachment committee had been successful. At about 3 p.m. Tuesday, Harbison said he and Shedd would put a pause on their resolution because House Speaker Mac McCutcheon had decided the committee would resume hearings next Wednesday.
But an hour later, the story reversed.
A spokeswoman for the speaker and the clerk of the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, told the press that there were no plans for the impeachment hearings to continue next week.
They said Jones would simply “give an update on the status of the proceedings,” which remain stalled pending word from the new attorney general, Steve Marshall, who was appointed by the governor Friday.
“The speaker said that he talked to Mike and that the committee would resume meeting and putting its plan together,” Harbison told APR. “Somewhere either he miscommunicated with Mike or something. I don’t know. He’s the speaker, and it’s laying in his lap.”
Harbison said Tuesday night that he had nearly enough signatures on his resolution to bring it to the floor and send the renewed and updated articles on to the Judiciary Committee for investigation, as required by House rules passed last year.
But that was before the House leadership decided to continue their holding pattern. Now, some legislators are considering alternative paths to bring the articles of impeachment before the full House for consideration.
“If they don’t do something next Wednesday, then there will be a move to do something different,” Harbison said. “I’m not just talking about me. I’m talking about several House members. There are a lot of people that share my feelings.”
Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he visited the Legislative Reference Service to see if there is a way around the Committee if it remains stalled.
House Rule 79.1, implemented last year, requires 21 representatives to sign onto an impeachment resolution before it can be brought to the floor. Then it must be assigned to the Judiciary Committee for review.
If a legislator were to ask for the rules to be suspended, Farley said, they would only need 53 votes to get around the requirement that the resolution be sent to the committee. After a waiting period, the resolution could be brought to the floor the next legislative day.
“We can discuss it, and we can vote on whether or not we feel there is evidence to send it to the Senate,” Farley said.
Farley said he would do nothing behind the House leadership’s backs, though. He said he would wait until next week to see what Jones’ update is and whether it is likely that the committee moves forward with its investigation.
If it appears that the committee will remain stalled, Farley, Harbison and others could bring the rule change as soon as Feb. 23 and the resolution to the full House by the end of the month. Farley said he’s prepared to go around the committee because the House shouldn’t be waiting on a Bentley-appointed attorney general to give them the go-ahead.
“I think that’s part of what’s caused some real acid with some of these members of the House, because they’ve realized that this new AG is an appointee of the man who we are talking about investigating,” Farley said. “I don’t know what we’re doing if Chairman Jones is saying we’re going to wait from the O.K. from the A.G., and then the A.G. is saying that he’s going to stand back and recuse himself.”
That could be one of the “perfect storms” — perhaps purposeful, perhaps not — that could hold back the House for so long that there’s no point in pursuing any impeachment because the governor could be long gone, Farley said.
“We’ve got enough members in the House that want this settled,” he said. “They do not want this swept under a rug. … This makes us look like we are trying to cover this up or make it go away. Is that what we want?”