By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The beginning of the end for Robert Bentley’s tenure as Governor of Alabama is easy to pinpoint.
It came on Feb. 9, 2017, right around the time Bentley was strolling to a podium at the Alabama Department of Archives and History with then-Attorney General Luther Strange in tow. Bentley was planning to announce that he had selected Strange to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by newly appointed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
He didn’t know it, but that announcement would start anew, the downward spiral that had seen Bentley go from popular, trusted Governor to convicted criminal former Governor.
“It changed everything,” a member of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee said this week of the Strange appointment. “Bentley was not going to be impeached before that occurred. There was no political will to do it. Then he did that.”
It is hard to emphasize just how unpopular the Strange appointment was among lawmakers. But for those on the House Judiciary Committee – even those who have long supported Bentley – it prompted instant outrage.
After all, here was a Governor who was the focus of a House impeachment proceeding, and if rumors are to be believed, is also the focus of two grand jury investigations. And he’s appointing to the Senate a man whose office was leading one of those investigations? The same Luther Strange who asked the House Judiciary Committee to halt its investigation?
Rep. Ed Henry told US News and World Report that he personally went to Bentley and asked him not to appoint Strange. Henry said he told the governor that he would be impeached, maybe even convicted, if he did so.
“’Ed we have to get rid of him. He’s corrupt,’” Henry told US News Bentley said to him.
When Henry reminded Bentley that he could be impeached or indicted over the appointment, Bentley scoffed and reminded Henry that he got to pick Strange’s successor.
Henry is not the only lawmaker to relay such a conversation with Bentley. Another longtime lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he, too, had spoken with Bentley and that the former governor referred to Strange as corrupt and cited that as a reason to appoint him to the Senate.
Privately, GOP lawmakers were angry, and the Strange appointment was the last straw. For the most part, they had stuck together and protected Bentley from his year of hell, as scandal engulfed Bentley over his affair with a former aide. But after all of that embarrassment, here was Bentley making the same mistakes all over again.
Not only was he appointing Strange, Bentley was also flying his mistress, Rebekah Mason, around on the State plane again. They went to the Trump inauguration and to an Airbus event in Mobile.
And with each misstep, the wall between the Governor and those calling for his head started to crumble.
But the full extent of the GOP anger towards Bentley wasn’t realized – even by those who held that anger – until the Judiciary Committee’s early-March meeting. In that meeting, the committee first voted not to suspend its activities. It came back the following day, in a surprise move, and voted to move forward with the impeachment process.
It was a surprise even for the lawmakers on the committee. Most fully expected to vote to continue the suspension of their duties — a suspension that all but guaranteed they wouldn’t take up the matter of impeachment in the 2017 Regular Session. And if not then, probably not ever.
Making that scenario more likely was the fact that acting AG Ellen Brooks had provided the committee with an out. Brooks wrote a letter to them saying she was concerned that if the committee picked back up its impeachment work and began another active investigation, it could border on “double-jeopardy.”
It was reason enough to bail out and do nothing. But then, Rep. Chris England started asking questions.
England, a former prosecutor, wasn’t satisfied with the answers he received from the House counsel, so he continued to press. And he pressed lawmakers on their vote. England was joined by Reps. Allen Farley and Paul Beckman, who also had tough questions and comments about the Governor’s exposure to possible crimes and grounds for impeachment.
Realizing the public support to move forward, and that there was political will among his members, Committee chairman Mike Jones called for another meeting the following day. A few hours later, Jones and England were in front of cameras announcing that the impeachment process was about to get cranked back up.
Across the street, in the Alabama Capitol, life was about to get even more complicated….