By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge on Monday will hear motions from former Gov. Robert Bentley, Rebekah Mason, former ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler and ALEA General Counsel Michael Robinson to dismiss a lawsuit filed by former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier.
Collier has accused Bentley of firing him as retaliation for cooperating with an Attorney General’s Office investigation into then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard. According to Collier, Bentley fired him after Collier cooperated with the AG’s Office and filed an affidavit in the case. Bentley had explicitly told him not to cooperate with the investigation, Collier has said.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Greg Griffin will hear arguments from the parties in the case over motions to dismiss. Bentley’s attorneys argue he is shielded from civil action by immunity protections afforded to constitutional officers.
His attorneys, in a written brief in the case, wrote that “Collier cannot use artful pleading to circumvent the Governor’s absolute State immunity to money-damages suits for actions taken in the scope of his employment as a constitutional officer.”
Bentley’s attorneys point to Section 14 of the Alabama Constitution, which says the State of Alabama can never be a defendant in a legal case. The attorneys and some court precedent extend that immunity to constitutional officers — though Collier is suing Bentley in his individual capacity.
“Alabama law establishes that Collier’s money-damages claims against the former Governor, even though Collier purports to bring them against the former Governor in his ‘individual’ capacity, are ‘in effect, one[s] against the state’ for these purposes and therefore barred by Section 14,” Bentley’s attorneys wrote.
Mason and the other co-defendants in the case — who are accused of assisting in efforts to defame Collier’s character — also asked for their portions of the lawsuit to be dismissed on similar grounds. They also pointed to motions filed earlier this year asking for dismissal. Collier later amended his lawsuit.
Griffin will hear arguments on Monday at 9 a.m.
Attorney’s for Collier — who last year made headlines when he publicly accused Bentley and Mason of misusing state resources to facilitate a long-term affair — responded to Bentley’s motion, calling it “absurd and wrong.”
“If Bentley is right and the Court dismisses this case, it would mean that anytime a Governor gets mad at someone, he or she can use ALEA officers and law enforcement resources to dig into that person’s background; access his prescription medication records; falsely accuse the person of crimes; and create and publish an internal confidential ALEA report with false information,” Collier’s attorney wrote in the complaint.
Collier’s lawsuit alleges that Bentley and Mason went to great lengths to “demonize him,” with the help of Robinson and Stabler in ALEA, who were told to perform an internal investigation into Collier.
In his response to their dismissal motions, Collier said his home was “geo-fenced” to monitor all incoming and outgoing social media activity “without a bona fide law enforcement purpose.” He said both his and his wife’s social media were monitored without cause to try to find something to justify his firing.
The House special counsel’s impeachment report alleged several instances of witness intimidation by Bentley and Mason including threatening former First Lady Diane Bentley’s chief of staff, Heather Hannah, with arrest for helping Diane record salacious conversations between the governor and Mason.
Those conversations, for which Bentley later apologized, were later made public. In Collier’s complaint, he alleges that Bentley wanted him to look into arresting Diane “for making the tapes ” — among other attempts to prevent the allegations from becoming public.
Collier filed the defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit last year after he was fired by Bentley in March 2016.
In his complaints, Collier has doubled down on previous allegations, accusing the governor, Mason and Stabler, and several other entities related to the governor, of defaming him, violating his privacy and firing him without cause. All of that, he has said, resulted from his compliance with the AGO’s Hubbard investigation.
Later, Bentley accused Collier of possible misuse of state funds — allegations that resulted from the internal ALEA investigation conducted by Stabler, Robinson and ALEA agent April Bickhaus. Collier had previously named Bickhaus as a defendant in the case, but the suit against her has since been dismissed.
Collier has said that the internal investigation was ordered by Bentley to “dig up” information on him to justify his firing and impeach his credibility as a witness in Hubbard pre-trial hearings.
The internal investigation against Collier turned up a myriad of allegations. Some were more tepid, accusing him of overspending on uniforms and weapons against ALEA policy. Other allegations in the report were more salacious, accusing him of overusing prescription painkillers for back problems, having an illegitimate child and hiring his babysitter with no law enforcement background for a homeland security job.
After Collier was fired, Bentley’s office said the results of the investigation had been forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office for further review.
The report, with unconfirmed allegations, was later leaked as part of a 1,600-page voluntary document dump from the Governor’s Office to the House Judiciary Committee investigating Bentley for impeachment. Bentley’s office also delivered the report to the press after a public records request. Bickhaus and Stabler have said the report should not have been made public.
Another portion of the internal reviews said that Collier had sexually assaulted a female employee of the agency, who later denied making the allegations. That allegation and others were later discredited. Collier has accused Bentley and Mason of using law enforcement resources to go after those who spoke out against their relationship.
That accusation has been supported by a report from special counsel hired by the House Judiciary Committee for their impeachment hearings.
In October 2016, a special grand jury convened by the Attorney General’s Office returned a no-bill against Collier, effectively clearing him of any legal wrongdoing. When the announcement was made, then-Attorney General Luther Strange said there was “no credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place.”
“The evidence will prove that the ALEA Investigation was solely to dig up dirt on Collier and was consistent with Bentley’s pattern of using law enforcement personnel and state resources to hurt those who crossed Rebekah,” Collier’s attorneys have said.
Collier’s attorneys believe Bentley can be sued in his personal capacity as Collier’s former boss, but Bentley’s attorneys argue that his role as Collier’s boss falls under the purvue of his position as a constitutional officer of the state of Alabama.
“Collier begs to differ,” Collier’s attorney wrote. “Using state resources to further and cover up an affair and then using law enforcement resources to try to personally harm and discredit a key witness is not a perk of being governor. … The Supreme Court has made clear that absolute immunity does not grant relief from liability to constitutional and executive officers in all cases.”
The former ALEA secretary, who said he once thought of Bentley as a good friend and father figure, is now seeking monetary damages from Bentley personally, not from the state. Collier’s attorneys say they can prove Bentley acted “outside of the scope of the office of Governor, but also grossly abused his authority.”
If the judge allows it to go forward, the suit would be heard by a jury.
The immunity claims — though they have been argued back and forth since last year — have not yet been ruled on and the lawsuit was mostly stalled for months because former Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene Reese retired.
Bentley, who is now back in Tuscaloosa running a dermatology practice, resigned in April and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign finance violations.