Pulling back the curtain on Governor Bentley’s dark money organization

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - WHNT News 19 has obtained a long-sought tax document from Governor Robert Bentley’s dark money group, the Alabama Council for Excellent Government (ACEGOV), which the governor’s former top political advisor and alleged mistress has said paid her $15,000 in 2015.

The form, a 990, provides the most complete information to date on the 501(c)4.

Dark Money

ACEGOV was formed on February 18, 2015, and this is the first substantial disclosure of information about its finances. We now know that by the end of the year, it had amassed $90,600. However, the form does not disclose a single donor.

The group spent $22,500 on web development, social media content, and consulting, all services Rebekah Caldwell Mason’s company, RCM Communications could have provided. ACEGOV’s attorney, who provided the 990, has not clarified where that $22,500 went beyond the services listed. Mason, Bentley’s former senior political advisor, has been at the center of allegations that she and Bentley had an affair.

The 501(c)4 also spent $28,000 on polling and surveys. One of those surveys, conducted as Governor Bentley made plans to increase revenue for the state, was published on acegov.com under the headline, Alabama Conservatives Dislike Cuts to State Services Poll Reveals.

The poll asked people for their opinions on a number of issues as well as their approval rating of the governor. It also features a number of questions commonly referred to as “push polling”, meaning they are designed to push voters in a specific direction.

For example:

Would you favor or oppose cutbacks in the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which will slow down business permits, growth, and development, as well as leave many decisions in the hands of Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency?

The survey concludes with this question:

And, now that you have heard more about it, do you think that Governor Bentley and the state legislature should close the budget shortfall by increasing revenue or by cutting spending on important programs?

The survey found 62% of Alabama supported the government “increasing revenue,” while only 26% said they wanted to “cut spending on important programs.” The survey included 500 likely Republican voters, according to the ACEGOV website.

Why the Lights Stay Off

We still know next to nothing about the sources of funding for ACEGOV.

Because ACEGOV is a 501(c)4, it does not need to disclose donors. By law, 501(c)4’s are designed to promote social welfare.

The Certificate of Formation for ACEGOV hints at this mission. Subsection 3.01b of the document says the council is meant “to promote the common good and general welfare of the people of the State of Alabama through programs and activities designed to resolve the educational, civic, social, financial, and economic issues facing Alabama.”

However, the first stated purpose of ACEGOV is “to advance the beliefs and policies espoused by Governor Robert Bentley.”

The Players

While the two most recognizable names linked to ACEGOV belong to Governor Bentley and Rebekah Caldwell Mason, neither of them show up in the 990.

The names officially linked to the Alabama Council for Excellent Government are:

  • Cooper Shattuck - ACEGOV Chairman of the Board/President, General Counsel for the University of Alabama
  • Brandon Farmer - ACEGOV Vice President, Lobbyist for Alabama’s largest nursing home provider, Tuscaloosa-based NHS Management
  • R.B. Walker - ACEGOV Secretary & Treasurer, Director of Governmental Relations, University of Alabama System

Left in Shambles

ACEGOV seems to have largely collapsed in on itself over the course the last year.

We made our first request for ACEGOV’s 990 to President Cooper Shattuck on July 1, 2016. He told us it was not due until August and had not been completed. We followed up at both the beginning and the end of August without hearing back.

When we reached out again at the beginning of September, we found Cooper Shattuck' ACEGOV e-mail account, acegovshattuck@gmail.com, had been deleted.

That makes it one of a number of pieces of ACEGOV’s digital presence that have crumbled. ACEGOV’s Facebook page has been deleted. Its Twitter account has been suspended. The domain name acegov.com has expired. Their website is now found at rebekah-mason-ed3r.squarespace.com.

The group is listed as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Director Spencer Collier, who says Bentley and his alleged mistress targeted his job for his refusal to cooperate with them. That lawsuit has stalled pending criminal investigations.

The attorney representing ACEGOV in the Collier lawsuit, Richard Raleigh, provided us the 990.

In response to follow-up questions, he told WHNT News 19, “You've correctly surmised ACEGOV is dormant, and given the several lawsuits and investigations, there really is no practical way for ACEGOV to do the things it was created to do (as described in the articles of organization I sent you). As it is unable to operate in any real way, ACEGOV is considering corporate dissolution (something you had asked about).”

When we asked the governor's office about ACEGOV, a spokesperson told us they had forwarded our questions to Bentley's attorney, Joe Espy, who is representing him in those investigations.