House committee suspends impeachment investigation into Gov. Bentley, pending AG probe

Governor Robert Bentley (Photo: Governor's Office/Jamie Martin)

Governor Robert Bentley (Photo: Governor's Office/Jamie Martin)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House committee investigating whether Gov. Robert Bentley should be impeached said Thursday it is suspending the investigation after a request from Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.

Strange asked committee chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, to suspend the investigation.

In a letter to Jones, Strange said it would be ‘prudent and beneficial’ if the Judiciary Committee suspended its investigation, including active interviews, until the attorney general’s staff completes its probe, according to the judiciary committee press release.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said it was a criminal probe.

“While I have complete confidence in the Judiciary Committee and its special counsel, I believe that moving forward with the impeachment hearings while there is an active criminal investigation would put a number of parties in a difficult position,” said McCutcheon. “I support pausing the committee investigation and allowing the criminal proceedings to run their course.”

What is not directly spelled out is whether Gov. Bentley is the focus of the criminal investigation.

The governor’s office released statements from Bentley and his attorney Thursday evening.

“I respect the position of the Attorney General and the leadership of the House of Representatives. My focus will continue to be on doing the work of the people of Alabama,” Bentley said.

Ross Garber, attorney for the Office of the Governor, said he’s not been told of an investigation of Bentley by the AG’s office.

“It is appropriate that the Committee’s investigation has been suspended,” Garber said. “While the Attorney General has indicated that he is conducting ‘related work,’ I am aware of no investigation by the Attorney General into the Governor or any personnel in the Office of the Governor.”

[AG asks committee to suspend probe: 2016-11-03-jones-mike-rep-ltr-judy-special-counsel-2 ]

[Committee to suspend impeachment probe: jones-letter-on-impeachment-investigation ]

The committee is investigating two claims against Bentley: neglect of duty and corruption in office. The impeachment effort began after recordings were released of Bentley having intimate conversations with his former top political advisor Rebekah Mason.

Bentley has denied wrongdoing. The judiciary committee has issued subpoenas for numerous documents from Bentley, Mason and others. The subpoenas also asked Bentley to testify before the committee.

But Bentley says the committee does not have subpoena power or the ability to enforce a subpoena.

The governor has offered to have a closed-door meeting with committee members, with the conditions that no attorney can be present and it cannot be recorded.

Jones’ statement today said the cooperation with the committee has been “minimal at best.”

“As I said at the first meeting on the Articles of Impeachment, this committee would work cooperatively with other investigating agencies and today’s action testifies to that,” said Representative Mike Jones, R-Andalusia.  “We are temporarily suspending activity at the attorney general’s request but we are not abdicating our responsibility.  Everything the committee has done remains in effect.”

The focus on Bentley’s relationship with Mason began after former ALEA director Spencer Collier said he was fired, in part, for warning the governor that it was illegal to use state funds to further an affair.

Collier was fired by Bentley in March and accused of potentially criminal misuse of state funds. But last month, the AG’s office said its investigation into Collier found no wrongdoing and a grand jury found no basis for criminal charges against him.

Collier said at a press conference this spring that Bentley and Mason were angry with Collier because he wrote an affidavit supporting the criminal investigation into then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard.

The same public integrity unit that investigated Hubbard, is known as the Special Prosecution Division. It handled the investigation into Collier. It is not clear if that unit is handling the investigation Strange cited in his letter to the committee chairman.

The AG’s office declined to comment Thursday evening.