MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Ethics Commission today recommended ethics and campaign finance charges be pursued against Gov. Robert Bentley.
The commission met for more than eight hours in executive session before emerging and voting in support of the charges. The commission’s ruling means it found there was probable cause to believe Bentley violated state ethics and campaign finance laws.
It doesn’t have the power to prosecute, that responsibility in this case is now in the hands of the Montgomery County DA’s office.
The five-member commission operates much like a grand jury and its vote basically means they found probable cause to believe ethics violations occurred.
The commission cited four separate complaints, including an ethics charge for use of state personnel, equipment and time, to “further his personal interest. And, three apparently related campaign finance violations: using campaign funds to pay the legal bills of a public official, former top political aide and alleged mistress Rebekah Mason; making a loan to his campaign outside the time he was a candidate, and receiving a campaign contribution outside the time he was a candidate for governor.
In January WHNT News 19 reported Bentley violated campaign finance law by waiting more than two months to report a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign committee on Nov. 15, two years after his last campaign for governor, campaign records show.
The commission did not release the report that served as the basis for its decision, but said it will be forwarded to prosecutors.
The campaign finance and ethics violations are considered a Class B felony under Alabama law. A conviction of a Class B felony carries a possible sentence of 2 to 20 years in prison. And, up to a $20,000 fine per count. The commission said its investigation included 45 witness interviews and reviews of 33,000 documents.
The commission met behind closed doors to hear testimony from witnesses and the commission used law enforcement personnel to block media members from observing who came to testify.
But Gov. Bentley was seen entering the building about an hour ago and leaving a short time later.
Both Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler and former gubernatorial candidate Stacy George, a former Morgan County commissioner, sat in witness rooms for several hours, ready to testify. Both men have filed ethics complaints against Bentley.
The governor is also being investigated by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. The Alabama House Judiciary Committee is expected to receive a report on Friday from its special counsel on evidence he’s gathered regarding the possible impeachment — and removal from office — of Bentley.
Bentley has been under a cloud for the past year after Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, publicly alleged Bentley was having an affair with Rebekah Mason, who served as Bentley’s top political aide.
The governor denied the charges in an awkward press conference, but some members of the House began calling for his ouster, questioning whether he used state resources to further the affair.
Bentley is also facing separate lawsuits from Collier and the former head of his state security detail, Wendell Ray Lewis.