MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Turning up the pressure on Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama lawmakers opened impeachment hearings Monday over allegations he abused his powers to cover up an extramarital affair with a top aide.
The mild-mannered 74-year-old Republican and one-time Baptist deacon refused to step down as the scandal gathered force over the past few days, even though it appeared he had practically no support in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Bentley, a staunch family-values conservative who won two terms partly because of his reputation for moral rectitude, was first engulfed in scandal last year after recordings surfaced of him making sexually charged comments to 45-year-old political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
An investigative report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee and released last week said Bentley encouraged an “atmosphere of intimidation” to keep the story under wraps and directed law enforcement officers to track down and seize the recordings. The report portrayed the governor as paranoid and obsessed with trying to keep the relationship secret.
The committee on Monday opened what is expected to be a week of hearings, culminating in a vote on whether to recommend Bentley’s impeachment. An impeachment motion would then be put to a vote of the full House.
If the House impeaches Bentley, he will automatically be removed from his duties and can only be returned to office if acquitted in a trial in the Alabama Senate.
Bentley lawyer Ross Garber has argued that impeachment should be reserved for only the “most grave misconduct,” noting that only two U.S. governors have been impeached since 1929, and both were indicted for serious felonies.
“It is not unusual for elected officials to have ethics and campaign finance issues. In fact, many governors face these things. It is very rare, though, for legislators to try to leverage those issues to impeach a governor. In fact, it is simply not done,” Garber told The Associated Press in an email.
Garber also represented former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who in 2009 became the last U.S. governor to be impeached. He was removed from office, and is now serving a prison sentence, for conspiring to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.
The investigative report contained text messages that the governor sent to Mason. They were intercepted by Bentley’s then-wife, Dianne Bentley, who was able to read the messages because they also showed up on the governor’s state-issued iPad, which he had given her.
“I sure miss you. I need you. I want you. You are the only one,” one message read.
Dianne Bentley divorced her husband in 2015 after 50 years of marriage.
At one point, according to the investigative report, the governor sent the head of his security detail to fetch the recording from his son, Paul Bentley, who responded: “You ain’t getting it.”
The former first lady’s chief of staff also charged that Bentley threatened her job because he believed she had helped his wife make the recordings.
The Alabama Ethics Commission last week cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws. The matter has been referred to the attorney general’s office.
On Friday, the governor made a somber plea for forgiveness from the steps of the Alabama Capitol, acknowledging that he had let people down but promising that he had done nothing illegal or anything to merit his removal from office.
He has denied having a physical relationship with his former aide, though in some of the recordings he talked about the pleasure he got from fondling her breasts.
GOP leaders in the House and Senate have called on Bentley to resign, as has the Alabama Republican Party’s steering committee.
Two of Bentley’s predecessors in the past three decades have gone to prison for corruption: Republican Guy Hunt in the 1990s, for misusing funds, and Democrat Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery in 2006.