By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Friday, April 7, 2017, House Judiciary Committee Special Counsel Jack Sharman released his investigative report on the possible impeachment of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R). The Sharman report was lengthy; but there was little in there that avid readers of The Alabama Political Reporter did not already know. One area that the report did reveal new details was in the account of former First Lady Dianne Bentley’s former Chief of Staff Heather Hannah.
Most of our regular readers have long ago come to the conclusion that Governor Robert Bentley (R) threw away a marriage of 50 years to pursue an adulterous relationship with a married former staffer and later top political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. That is sleazy, but sex (of whatever form) between two consenting adults is not illegal and is arguably not a cause for impeachment. If that were all that happened, Bentley would not be on the verge of being the Governor in the State to be impeached and removed by his own Legislature. Last week both House Special counsel Jack Sharman and/or the Alabama Ethics Commission have put forward claims that they believe that the evidence shows that Governor Bentley probably misused state resources, broke campaign finance laws, created a dark money group to funnel money to Mrs. Mason, and treated the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency agents and resource as if they were his own personal property.
The report however also exposed a much darker side to Gov. Bentley’s personality, including paranoia, widespread misuse of law enforcement resources and personnel, as well as allegations of harassment and possibly even witness intimidation.
Divorces, especially divorces involving marital infidelity, are ugly. Persons who were friends with the couple often find themselves drawn into the conflict. If your job is to help your friend that is probably even more difficult. Heather Hannah was the Chief of Staff for Alabama First Lady Dianne Bentley.
According to the report, Bentley’s campaign was initially run out of the Bentleys’ kitchen with Dianne Bentley baking cookies for the group of college students and volunteers who made up the entirety of the campaign staff. This group of volunteers included Heather Hannah, from the famed Hannah University of Alabama and NFL football family.
After beating out Tim James to get in the Republican runoff in 2010 Rep. Bentley believing he needed to develop a more sophisticated operation and to add someone to his campaign with experience dealing with the news media, Bentley chose former reporter, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, from the Sunday School class he taught at First Baptist Church Tuscaloosa, even though she told him he had “no chance” of winning. After the first inauguration in January 2011, Mason transitioned from press secretary for the campaign to the Director of Communications in Office of the Governor where she worked closely with Bentley.
According to the Sharman report, by September 2013, First Lady Dianne Bentley began to have concerns about Mason. At that time, Rebekah Mason’s family still lived in Tuscaloosa, but Rebekah was spending her nights in the pool house at the Governor’s Mansion. Mrs. Bentley began noticing that Mason was frequently texting her husband on weekends with unnecessary “emergencies” or simply about football games.
Hannah testified that in October 2013, Mason and the Governor were at the Mansion working on a speech when she walked into the room. Hannah said that they seemed to jump at her presence as if they were uncomfortable with someone seeing them. This was her the moment that her suspicions were first aroused.
Staffers including Hannah noticed that Mason had supplanted other “insiders” within the Office of the Governor. Hannah testified that Bentley was leaving the Mansion earlier in the mornings and returning later, and she recalls a particular day when Governor Bentley had makeup on his shirt when he came home.
By January 2014, Mrs. Bentley’s staff brought their growing suspicions to Mrs. Bentley. The tipping point was Mason’s failure to seat one of the Bentley children near Mrs. Bentley during the State of the State speech and Governor Bentley’s defense of Mason when it was brought to his attention. Ms. Bentley confronted the Governor about Mason, but he steadfastly denied an inappropriate relationship with the married Mrs. Mason.
In the spring 2014, Governor Bentley mistakenly sent to Ms. Bentley a text message that stated, “I love you Rebekah” accompanied by a red-rose emoji. On other occasions, Ms. Bentley was able to read the bizarrely inappropriate text messages sent by her husband to Mason because he had given Ms. Bentley his state-issued iPad, without understanding that it shared the same “cloud” as his state-issued iPhone and granted equal access to all message functions. Other members of the Bentley family first learned of the affair the same way.
As originally reported by The Alabama Political Reporter, Gov. Bentley responded by purchasing burner cell phones once he discovered that his wife and others were aware of his communications with Mason.
Zach Lee reported to Heather Hannah during the re-election campaign that Governor Bentley had begun to call Rebekah Mason “baby” in meetings and that Governor Bentley and Mason frequently went to lunch together by themselves.
Mrs. Bentley, at this point still desperate to save the marriage of 49 years, wanted to confront the Governor with undeniable proof of the affair in order to make him admit his failings. For help Mrs. Bentley turned to Heather Hannah. Mrs. Bentley came up with the idea to use her cell phone’s recording feature but asked Hannah to show her how to operate it. After several failed attempts at the Mansion, they succeeded during the Bentleys’ trip to their beach house in March 2014. Mrs. Bentley captured the first of two recordings by turning on the phone’s recording device, placing it in her purse on the sofa, and then announcing to her husband that she was taking a long walk on the beach. 59 seconds later Governor Bentley was on the phone with Rebekah Caldwell Mason. The recordings captured Gov. Bentley, expressing both his passionate love for Mason and describing in detail the pleasure he drew from fondling her breasts.
After Ms. Bentley successfully made the recordings, she enlisted Heather Hannah’s help to extract them from her phone. Hannah did so by transferring the recordings to a laptop and burning them onto a disc. Hannah made a copy of the disc to keep for her own protection and gave the original to Ms. Bentley. Ms. Bentley played the disc for her son Paul and his wife Melissa.
Throughout the relationship, Paul Bentley was the primary spokesman for the Bentley family and had reportedly confronted his father earlier in 2014 about Mason, but the Governor denied the whole matter. Heather Hannah told investigators that in the late Spring of 2014, Paul traveled to Montgomery and forced his father to listen to the recordings. At that point, Governor Bentley stopped denying the relationship to his family. Hannah also testified that Paul Bentley reportedly later had a separate conversation with Mason, during which she also admitted to an affair with Governor Bentley. That tape is reportedly still in the possession of Paul Bentley and has not been shared with the investigation. Paul Bentley has also not testified before the special counsel.
Governor Bentley now became obsessed with the existence of the tapes and a desire to prevent them from becoming public. According to the report, Ray Lewis, the head of Bentley’s security detail, told investigators there is evidence to indicate that as of May 7, 2014, Governor Bentley knew two things about the recordings: they existed and that Paul Bentley had them.
Governor Bentley blamed Hannah for the existence of the tapes because he believed there was no possible way Ms. Bentley could have made them without her help. As the existence of the recordings became known, Hannah began to hear through other staff members and officials that Governor Bentley perceived her as problematic due to the existence of the recordings.
According to the report, Hannah testified that Governor Bentley personally confronted her on two occasions at the Governor’s Mansion. One confrontation took place in front of a wall of refrigerators in the kitchen of the Mansion. Governor Bentley pointed his finger in Hannah’s face and threatened, “You will never work in the State of Alabama again if you tell anyone about this (the affair).” Hannah relates that she was not intimidated by this encounter but believes intimidation was Governor Bentley’s intent. She described his demeanor as angry and that he was speaking to her in a loud tone of voice. The Governor also confronted Hannah face to face in the parking lot of the Mansion. Then, Governor Bentley confronted her about his suspicion that she had bugged his office to listen to conversations between him and Mason. Hannah relates that Governor Bentley warned her to “watch herself,” that she “did not know what she was getting into,” and that because he was the Governor, people “bow to his throne.”
At the Republican Primary victory party, which was held at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on June 3, 2014.228 Bentley’s security chief Ray Lewis spoke with Hannah in the parking lot. Hannah testified, “I was told that if I had access to [the tapes] to destroy them, get rid of them, make sure they weren’t on my computer, make sure I had no access to them because I could ultimately be in trouble and be punished for having those.” Hannah said, “They confronted me on a personal safety matter. They felt that I was going to be harmed, if I had it. However, as the conversation progressed, I felt that it was more out of protection and loyalty to the governor and less out of protection and concern for me.”
That same night Lewis had told Governor Bentley that Hannah was “his [Governor Bentley’s] problem” in relation to the recordings.
Hannah left the service of the First Lady after the 2014 Republican Primary.
Lewis said that his reason for telling Governor Bentley that Hannah was his problem was a hope that it would “snap the governor out of this wanting to. . I was hoping he would just do the right thing.”
Shortly after the August 5 intervention, Governor Bentley told ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier that he believed Heather Hannah had been responsible for making the recordings. He ordered Collier to find out whether there were criminal statutes that applied to Hannah’s suspected activity. He told Collier to be prepared to arrest Hannah if the tapes were released publicly.
Collier then went to his ALEA counsel, Deputy Attorney General Jason Swann, and gave him a factual hypothetical about covert recording, and asked him to research the law to determine the applicability of any criminal statutes to the hypothetical. Swann provided Collier with copies of the relevant eavesdropping statute and discussed the law with him. Sometime later, Collier confided to Swann that the research he had asked him to do related to Governor Bentley and said “we’re looking into it.”
On August 6, 2014, attorney Clay Ryan called Ray Lewis and asked to meet with him about the recording and who had it. The two met in a coffee shop across from the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery. Lewis told Ryan that he thought Hannah might have the tapes.
Clay Ryan met with Heather Hannah soon after at a Panera Bread restaurant in Birmingham. Following that meeting, Clay Ryan called Collier and told him that he believed that Hannah had the tapes. Ray Lewis was in Collier’s office when Collier spoke with Ryan on the phone. Collier said that he told Ryan to stay out of official law enforcement business. Collier said that he told Governor Bentley to leave Heather Hannah alone. Collier says that Governor Bentley denied asking Ryan to meet with Hannah.
On September 14, 2015 the University of Alabama System announced that Clay Ryan was named UA System Vice Chancellor for Government Affairs.
In the summer of 2015 SBI Director Gene Wiggins called Special Agent Scott Lee of the SBI Agricultural and Rural Crimes Unit (ARCU) about conducting “special investigations” for Secretary Collier. Lee met with Collier and Gov. Bentley and Bentley asked him to investigate Heather Hannah.
According to his later testimony to the ALEA Integrity Unit Lee said that he told the Governor, “And I said, you know, at this point, I don’t know what the details are, but I just want you to understand that there have been politicians, as well as governors that have been prosecuted for using state police for personal reasons. I told him and the Governor, I won’t be used as a threat; I won’t be used as a harassment tool, that if I open a criminal investigation, then I work it to the end. There is no gray area.” I made it clear that a criminal investigation is one thing, but just looking at this trying to find out who got the recordings and for them not to release them, there’s a gray area there that we don’t need to cross.
Lee was then told not to proceed with the investigation. He eventually would leave ALEA.
The affair would become public in 2015 when bloggers Roger Shuler and Donald Watkins began independently reporting it. The Governor denied any wrongdoing.
In 2016 23. 2016 the whole thing exploded in the regular press when that recording from the beach became public when the Yellowhammer News released portions of the tape.
Shortly after that State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), who had quickly become disenchanted with what he felt was widespread corruption in the Bentley Administration, filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission alleging that Bentley had misused state resources including planes, helicopters, vehicles, and personnel to facilitate and then cover up the affair and that this was a violation of Alabama Ethics laws. Bentley’s 2014 Republican Primary opponent Stacy George then filed six ethic complaints alleging that Bentley had broken campaign finance laws.
In June 2016, Heather Hannah was deposed by investigators with the Alabama Ethics Commission regarding her knowledge of the Bentley-Mason relationship. Just days before she was to give her deposition Hannah was outside of her new home watering plants when she heard what sounded like her bushes rustling. Unsure of the source of the noise, she walked to the front of her house where she noticed “scribbles” on the windows of her vehicle. She stated that at the time she could tell the scribbles were some sort of writing, but she had difficulty reading it. She took photographs of the writing on her windows, and it showed up much clearer in the pictures. The first photograph is of writing on what appears to be the driver side windows of her vehicle, and it appears to read, “Bitch Die.” The second photograph is of writing on the windshield, and it appears to read, “You will fucking die.” The pictures are included in the Sharman report.
Then Hannah testified.
On June 15, 2016, Hannah was at her home preparing for bed. She turned off the light in her kitchen and was walking to the back of her house when she heard the sound of breaking glass. She walked back to her kitchen where she believed the sound originated and saw a rock lying on the floor. She also observed a broken panel in a large window on the front of her house. Hannah immediately called the police, who came to her home and took a police report at twenty minutes after midnight. At that time, Hannah also advised the officers of the vandalism of her vehicle.
Hannah told the police time that she believed both incidents were related to her recent deposition. Hannah repeated that during her deposition by the Special Counsel that she believed both incidents were related to her testimony before the Alabama Ethics Commission. Hannah testified that she could recall no personal or business conflicts outside of her service in the Office of the Governor and her residence was located in a Birmingham suburb with an exceptionally low crime rate. She had recently moved to the residence, and to her knowledge, her address had not been officially changed. However, she had sent a text message to a number of friends, updating her address. She stated that the distribution list of her text would have included friends with “pretty strong connections to the capital.”
The House Judiciary committee will begin hearings on the possible impeachment of Robert Bentley today at 10:00 am in room 200 of the Alabama Statehouse. Hearings are expected to last through most of this week. After the House Judiciary Committee finishes their hearings this week they will make a recommendation to the full House. If the Alabama House decides to impeach, the Senate is expected to act quickly on whether or not to remove Bentley as Governor.