Ethics panel finds cause to ad­vance Bent­ley case

Gover­nor ac­cused of break­ing fi­nan­cial law

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY KIM CHAN­DLER

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.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

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