If you thought Jeff Sessions’ path to become Donald Trump’s Attorney General was dramatic, you haven’t been paying attention to politics in Sessions’ home state of Alabama, where Republican Gov. Robert Bentley is facing impeachment charges related to a sex scandal, the House Speaker just went to jail for corruption, and a former Democratic governor was released federal prison yesterday on different corruption changes.
Rising mostly above the chaos has been Attorney General Luther Strange, a two-term Republican who, at 6’9, is known to most in the state as “Big Luther.” Strange’s name was included on a list of six last week whom the governor said he is considering to serve the last two years of Sessions’ unexpired term. Among the six, Strange is reportedly the governor’s favorite for the job and Strange has already announced that he’ll run for the Senate seat in 2018 no matter who the governor picks this year.
The former Eagle Scout and Tulane basketball standout is well-known in Alabama legal circles. He was a partner at the Birmingham law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, the sort of white-shoe Southern firm you read about in John Grisham novels, and started his own firm after that. His campaigns for Attorney General in 2010 and 2014 focused on fighting public corruption in a state mired in it. His tenure has mostly lived up to the promises. “Luther is very well respected and very well liked,” said a Birmingham attorney who has worked with Strange. “He’s a by-the-book kind of guy.”
Strange would be a natural pick for the job under nearly any circumstances, but Strange and Gov. Bentley aren’t operating under any circumstances. As Attorney General, Strange is positioned to investigate the governor, who is already facing an impeachment investigation related to a bizarre, even for Alabama, sex scandal. Bentley insists he has done nothing wrong, but choosing Strange to succeed Sessions would have a considerable perk—the chance to both send Strange away to Washington and to pick Strange’s replacement as Attorney General. In essence, Bentley would get to choose his own prosecutor, pick his own poison.
The Bentley soap opera began when the now 74-year old former Baptist deacon admitted to an inappropriate, but (he insists) non-sexual relationship with his former top aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who is 30 years his junior. During her time in the governor’s office, Mason was paid with untraceable campaign funds, instead of state funds, and reportedly functioned as his gatekeeper in the governor’s office for all official business.
When the governor’s wife began to suspect her husband of an affair (his new affinity for orange socks and rose emojis were the tells), she secretly taped his phone conversations, which were later leaked for the world, or at least all of Alabama, to hear. “You know, I worry about sometimes I love you so much, I worry about loving you so much,” the governor could be heard telling Mason. “I do. I do.”
The governor’s wife subsequently divorced him, Rebekah Mason left her job, and a different top aide sued Bentley for wrongful termination (retribution for discussing the Mason matter, he says). Most importantly, more than 20 members of the Alabama House moved in 2016 to impeach Bentley and the House Judiciary Committee began a wide-ranging impeachment investigation.
But in November of last year, a week before the presidential election, Attorney General Strange contacted the House committee to tell them to suspend their investigation while his own office worked on “related matters.” While it’s customary for a legislative committee to defer to a criminal investigation, Strange has not said what the “related matters” were or whether his office is conducting a criminal investigation.
Since then, Trump picked Sessions, creating a rare vacancy in the Senate, and Bentley began interviewing candidates for the job, including Strange, according to the AP. In the meantime, the House committee’s impeachment investigation has remained dormant and no progress has been announced by the AG’s office.
The idea of Bentley having the chance to choose his own watch dog has some local leaders fuming. “Pray for anybody but Luther Strange,” Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler told AL.com. “The reason? If Strange is appointed, then Bentley gets to single-handedly name a new State Attorney General who can ‘handle’ the investigations of Bentley and Rebekah Mason.”
“If you think Bentley has been bad the last two years,” he warned, “Just wait to see the next two with him having his own attorney general.”