By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
There I was, standing on the sidewalk along Monroe Street in downtown Montgomery, just outside of the nine-story RSA building where the Alabama Ethics Commission holds its regular meetings.
I was watching a loading dock where a black SUV – the kind government officials drive – was parked. Montgomery Police Department officers had shooed reporters away from the door leading out onto the loading dock, which raised suspicion, and we were pretty sure the car belonged to the Governor.
We were roughly five hours into the Ethics Commission’s private hearing on the allegations against Gov. Robert Bentley, and the majority of the State’s media had spent the day surfing the Internet. So, I had time to kill.
I had been out there about five minutes when the first pair of MPD officers approached to tell me that the sidewalk was closed.
Closed. For a “detail,” they said.
Now, let’s be clear about something: Had I been left out there to get a 5-second clip of Bentley walking out of the building, getting into his SUV and driving away, few people would have paid attention. Certainly, no more people would have cared about the video than were already following the story.
But that’s not how this administration rolls.
No, if it’s bad for the Governor, rest assured, he or someone close to him will make it exponentially worse.
That, in large part, was why we were even there on Wednesday, waiting nine-plus hours for the Ethics Commission to eventually tell us that there’s enough probable cause to recommend that Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey investigate Bentley for breaking an ethics law and three campaign finance laws. All of them felonies that could land Bentley in jail for eight years.
And for what?
The Governor has no doubt broken laws. But he didn’t do so to line his own pockets or prop up his business buddies.
He mainly broke them because he was stupid.
Stupid in love. Stupid in covering up love. Stupid in staying in love.
And despite the person on the other end of that love being a public relations expert so talented she’s worth more than $400,000 per year – at least, if you go by the amount Bentley’s dark money paid her – the Governor and his guru simply can’t get out of their own way.
Consider that this all started from an illicit affair between Bentley and Mason – an affair that broke up the Governor’s 50-year marriage. Instead of admitting that mistake and begging forgiveness, Bentley and his PR Guru denied it was physical – even as hideously-uncomfortable audio sex tapes were being played on live TV – and held quite possibly the dumbest press conference in history to try and convince everyone of this.
That PR nightmare was created by the completely botched attempt to fire Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and one of the special witnesses at Wednesday’s Commission hearing. Faced with losing his job, Collier fought back – as any sane person might predict – and told the world about discovering Bentley’s affair and the crazy amount of influence Mason had in the Capitol.
And the dominoes started to tumble down.
We all quickly learned of the dark money funding Mason’s salary – an arrangement that led, in part, to the ethics law violation. That charge, along with the three others – all having to do with Bentley’s affair with Mason and its coverup – were included in a complaint filed more than a year ago by State auditor Jim Zeigler.
It’s easy to dismiss Zeigler as being half-crazy and camera-coveting – and he’ll gladly admit to both – but two things about the guy: he was right and he’s somehow better at PR than the PR Guru and the Governor.
We know this because any person with the least bit of political or PR sense would have dug a hole, crawled into it and raked the dirt on top of themselves had they found themselves in the situation that Bentley and Mason created in 2016.
But not Bentley and Mason.
No, there continued to be sightings of Mason around Montgomery, at the governor’s mansion. Staffers talked quietly of Mason’s influence on decisions and her direction of the Governor.
And then, Bentley took Mason and her husband to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Flew her up on the sState plane.
A couple of weeks later, there was Mason at the Governor’s State of the State address, wiping away tears at the end of the speech.
State lawmakers who thought public sentiment had calmed enough that they could avoid carrying through with an impeachment attempt were livid. They had no real desire to impeach the Governor, especially over something so stupid. But on the other hand, the continued flaunting of this relationship, and the reminders of the embarrassment it caused, couldn’t be ignored.
The magnifying glass on Bentley turned up more problems, this time with his campaign finance reporting and the way he managed money.
He had illegally paid Mason’s legal fees – one charge by the commission. He had taken a contribution outside of the time period to pay for Mason’s trip with him to see and meet honorary Alabamian Celine Dion – another charge on Wednesday. And Bentley loaned his campaign money outside of the legal timeframe – the third campaign finance charge.
The charges were nothing.
Seriously. Taken by themselves, without the anger and vitriol, no one would care about these violations. They’re the turning-without-signaling versions of ethics laws violations.
Oh, but if you add in the stupidity of it all, along with the audacity and foolishness and pour in a touch of statewide embarrassment, you create a whole different situation. You create a situation in which the average voter does care and cares greatly.
Which brings me back to the loading dock.
Instead of a meaningless five-second clip of Bentley walking to the car, there was a 15-second video of cops trying to make me leave. That clip brought out more reporters, and we all later recorded another interaction with police which was somehow dumber than the first.
That all created a legitimate news story that people cared about, and furthered the notion that the Governor isn’t to be trusted.
As the Commission voted, it was impossible not to recognize the utter stupidity connecting it all. There was only one thing I could think.
That Bentley sure could use a political advisor.