The implosion of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s political career has, even by the standards of Southern state government, moved at a snail’s pace. But nearly 13 months after a bitter ex-state employee announced to the world that the Republican had been having a long-term affair with an aide, Bentley’s slow-burning scandal has culminated with his resignation from office.
Hours after the Alabama House Judiciary Committee began hearings to consider Bentley’s impeachment from office on Monday, the two-term governor was fingerprinted at the Montgomery County jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges, part of a deal struck with state law enforcement to avoid impeachment and multiple felony charges in exchange for his resignation.
After being booked on one count of failure to file campaign disclosures and one count of failure to disclose economic interest, Bentley made his way to the Old House Chamber of the Alabama state capitol and announced that he had ceded power to Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey.
“I’ve not always made the right choices, I’ve not always said the right thing. Though I have sometimes failed, I’ve always tried to live up to the high expectations that people place on the person who holds this esteemed office,” Bentley said. “There have been times that I’ve let you and our people down, and I’m sorry for that."
“I can no longer allow my family and my dear friends, my dedicated staff and cabinet, to be subjected to the consequences that my past actions have brought upon them,” Bentley continued. “The time has come for me to look at new ways to serve the good people of our great state. I have decided it is time for me to step down as Alabama’s governor.”
Bentley's resignation comes three days after the committee’s special counsel released a 3,000-page report on Bentley’s relationship with his married chief adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, and more than four years after the first stirrings of an illicit affair that ended the governor's marriage and his political career.
The 130-page summary of the committee’s investigation—which was comprehensive enough to have merited its own web domain—reads more like a rejected Nancy Meyers script treatment than the result of a government investigation: texted professions of undying love, indiscreet assignations in the governor’s office, and accusations that the governor directed a bodyguard to break up with his mistress for him.
The last item, a result of what the committee characterized as “increasing obsession and paranoia,” has prompted allegations that Bentley used state resources to conduct—and, apparently, to break off—his affair. It was this charge, more than any moral opprobrium, that led to calls for the governor's impeachment.
The leadership of Alabama Republican Party said it couldn't support Bentley on Monday afternoon. "When situations arise that are in direct conflict with the betterment of our people, we will speak up regardless of political party," it said in a statement.
Bentley, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, denied that a “physical affair” took place for more than a year, but he has apologized for making “inappropriate remarks” to Mason.
The end of Bentley's two-decade political career may be the least of his worries, however. On April 5, a state ethics commission found probable cause to believe that Bentley had violated both the Alabama Ethics Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Although the details of the specific allegations are sketchy, they are Class B felonies. Were Bentley to be charged by the Montgomery County district attorney and convicted, he faced 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation. The reported deal between Bentley and the Montgomery County district attorney, however, reduces those potential charges to the two misdemeanor charges.
The plea deal also stipulated Bentley's resignation from office—sparing the governor potential jail time in exchange for sparing the people of Alabama the specter of drawn-out impeachment proceedings against the state's chief executive.
What Bentley may be most guilty of, though, is being really bad at having an affair.
Starting in 2013, according to Bentley’s now ex-wife, Dianne, Mason began staying overnight in the pool house of the governor’s mansion, an arrangement that raised eyebrows in Montgomery.
At first, Dianne Bentley excused the frequent sleepovers, according to the report. Mason’s home with her husband, the head of the governor’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, was in Tuscaloosa, nearly a two-hour drive from the state capital. But the first lady of Alabama, a devout Christian who would write prayer requests for her husband on sticky notes that she kept in her personal devotional, was eventually informed by Heather Hannah, her chief of staff, that the governor and Mason would “jump” when interrupted by other members of his staff and that he had begun to return home from work with makeup on his shirts.
The governor’s wife and Hannah were among the more than 20 witnesses interviewed by the special counsel appointed by the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to investigate Bantley's relationship with mason. The report is based on their testimony, as well as a review of more than 10,000 pages of documents, text message transcripts, and audio recordings.
Other members of the governor’s staff began to notice Bentley’s increasingly close relationship with his chief adviser. According to the House committee’s report, Bentley would call Mason “baby” in meetings, and Ray Lewis, the leader of Bentley’s security detail, told the House committee that he had once observed Mason leaving the governor’s office with tousled hair, her outfit disheveled.
The governor’s apparent indiscretion in conducting the affair was matched only by his paranoia about the affair being publicly revealed. Hannah, Dianne Bentley’s chief of staff, testified to the House committee that the governor personally confronted her on multiple occasions about leaking information about the affair.
The confrontations featured open threats from the governor, Hannah told the House committee’s special counsel.
“You will never work in the state of Alabama again if you tell anyone about this,” Hannah recalled Bentley telling her in the kitchen of the governor’s mansion, a finger pointed in her face.
On another occasion, Hannah testified that Bentley warned her to “watch herself” because she “did not know what she was getting into,” and that his position as governor meant that the people of Alabama would “bow to his throne.”
Meanwhile, the once-close Bentley marriage was collapsing. During a ritzy National Governors Association dinner in Washington, D.C., the governor texted Mason—seated across the table—in full view of his wife, who was sitting next to him.
The text, Dianne Bentley later testified, read: “I can’t take my eyes off of you.”
Other members of the governor’s family became aware of the affair, according to the report, after perusing a state-issued iPad that Bentley had given to his wife. The 74-year-old governor was apparently ignorant of the fact that the tablet was logged into the same iCloud messaging account that he used to text sweet nothings to Mason.
Bentley’s four adult sons were apparently so worried that they came to suspect that the affair was the result of “dementia,” according to the report. The Bentley children went so far as to attempt to have the governor evaluated by medical specialists, although no such evaluation ever took place.
Meanwhile, the governor’s wife began taking screenshots of the governor’s texts with Mason that appeared on her iPad—conversations that eventually became crucial and cringeworthy evidence in the impeachment case against Bentley.
Perhaps the most egregious moment in the Bentley-Mason affair came when the governor, as cheating husbands have done since text messaging was invented, accidentally texted “I love you Rebekah” to his wife.
To Bentley’s credit, he followed up 17 hours later by texting “I love you Dianne” with an emoji of a rose.
On Aug. 28, 2015, the governor’s wife filed for divorce.
Cheating on one’s spouse isn’t against the law, even in Alabama. So many “family values” Republicans have turned out to be guilty of sexual impropriety that Bentley’s worst mistake might just have been unoriginality.
But it was the governor’s alleged use of state employees to facilitate and cover up his affair—and the eventual firing of the state’s top law enforcement official—that turned a tale of political peccadilloes into threats of impeachment and possible jail time.
According to the House committee’s report, Bentley directed Lewis, his security chief, to confront office staff whom he believed to be gossiping about the affair, as well as to convince one of his adult sons to turn over surreptitious recordings his wife had made of him and Mason.
The governor allegedly even used Lewis as a go-between to finally end his relationship with Mason, according to the committee’s report. After Lewis confronted the governor about the affair, the report alleges, Bentley “asked Lewis to go upstairs to meet with Mason and end the relationship.”
After the hour-long breakup meeting in a conference room at the state capitol in which Lewis conveyed the governor’s wishes, Bentley entered the room and placed a hand on Mason’s shoulder. “It’s all right, baby,” Lewis later testified that Bentley said. “It’s going to be all right.”
But although the affair was over, the report alleges, the cover-up continued.
Bentley apparently became suspicious that Spencer Collier, the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, was in possession of some of the recordings containing evidence that he had been engaged in an affair with Mason. After attempting to sideline Collier by placing him on medical leave, Collier alleges, the governor fired him on March 22, 2016, alleging misuse of state funds by the agency Collier oversaw. (Collier has since been cleared of any wrongdoing.)
That same day, Collier told AL.com that he had seen text messages and heard audio recordings showing that Bentley had been conducting an affair, igniting the public scandal that has finally lead to the demise of the once-popular governor’s political career.
“It’s a horrible, ugly episode and I am ashamed to have been around it,” Collier said at the time. “But I told him I would never lie for him.”
Mason, who has not spoken publicly about the report but denies the affair, resigned from the governor’s office three days later, announcing that her only plans were “to focus my full attention on my precious children and my husband who I love dearly. They are the most important people in my life.”
Mason has not been charged with a crime.