Ethics panel finds cause to advance Bentley case
Governor accused of breaking financial law
MONTGOMERY, ALA. | Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley could face criminal prosecution after a state ethics panel found probable cause that he broke ethics and campaign finance law in a sex-tinged scandal that has engulfed him for more than a year.
The Alabama Ethics Commission, after an all-day meeting, voted to refer four issues to the district attorney’s office, which will decide whether to pursue charges.
The commission found probable cause that Mr. Bentley misused state resources and campaign funds, improperly accepted a campaign donation outside an allowed fundraising window, and loaned himself campaign money when he was not a candidate.
The decision was a legal and political blow to the two-term Republican who has been dogged by accusations and questions after recordings surfaced in 2016 of him making suggestive remarks to a female aide before his divorce.
Mr. Bentley has acknowledged making personal mistakes but maintained he did nothing illegal.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Bentley accusing him of using state resources to pursue a relationship with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who resigned shortly after the recordings became public.
Bentley attorney Bill Athanas said Wednesday that the governor maintains his innocence.
“We disagree strongly with the result, but I think it is important to keep in mind that it is a finding of probable cause, not finding of a violation … The battle goes on,” said Mr. Athanas, adding that he plans to talk to prosecutors and said there is no basis for charges.
Mr. Zeigler praised the decision, but also emphasized it was “only the first step.”
“I am pleased that the governor is going to finally face accountability and sad for the state of Alabama that we’ve had to go through this the last year-anda-half,” he said.
Mr. Bentley was photographed by the Montgomery Advertiser leaving the Ethics Commission building several hours into the hearing, which holds high stakes for his political and legal future.
Mr. Athanas declined to say whether the governor testified.
The commission did not give much detail about the accusations. On the ethics complaint, the commission found there was probable cause that he used public resources, including “subordinate personnel, equipment and time all under his discretion or control to further his personal interests.”
It did not elaborate.
The other witnesses before the commission were expected to include Spencer Collier, the governor’s former law enforcement secretary and the first person to publicly raise concerns about the relationship; Ray Lewis, Mr. Bentley’s former bodyguard; and Secretary of State John Merrill.
Mr. Merrill raised concerns about Mr. Bentley using nearly $9,000 in campaign funds to pay a lawyer representing Ms. Mason, saying that was not a permissible use of campaign funds under state law.
The governor, who by law cannot seek re-election, last year reported lending his campaign $50,000 as he emptied his campaign account to pay legal bills.
The scandal has tarnished the reputation of the governor, a mild-mannered dermatologist and former Baptist deacon who attracted voters to his long-shot Republican primary campaign in 2010 with his nice-guy image and promises not to accept a gubernatorial salary.
The Alabama Ethics Commission said Wednesday that there’s reason to believe Gov. Robert Bentley broke state law in a scandal that has engulfed him.