MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Impeachment hearings are underway for Governor Robert Bentley. Lawmakers are considering whether to try oust the governor over accusations he used state resources to hide a relationship with a top aide. WHNT News 19 is covering the proceedings from Montgomery and from our newsroom in Huntsville -- read updates from our team below.
The committee is beginning to take their seats. We should start fairly soon.
Today’s hearing has begun, but there has been a lot of activity already this morning surrounding Gov. Bentley.
First, sources confirm Gov. Bentley has representatives negotiating his resignation. That could happen later today, we’re hearing.
Also, the Montgomery County District Attorney has referred possible criminal charges to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Also – pull up another browser tab to watch the hearing LIVE.
Chairman Jones said he’s proud of the work of the committee and Special Counsel Jack Sharman. Said it’s been a thorough investigation. Sharman is expected to brief committee on his report.
Pretty interesting Jones refers to King Edward. He gave up the throne of Great Britain in order to marry American divorcee.
Huntsville area Rep. Mike Ball is recusing himself from Judiciary Committee hearings. No reason given. Ball had previously said he might be a witness during the proceedings.
Special Counsel Jack Sharman, most-read author in Alabama over the weekend, set to address the committee.
As he wrote in the report Sharman tells committee impeachment is a remedy for the people against an unfit executive, it’s not about the punishment of the officeholder — like in a criminal case.
Sharman referring to 1833 court writing in explaining impeachment background. Also brings up Nixon impeachment proceeding, involves offenses that are ‘rather obviously wrong,’ rather than criminal.
Sharman now talking about Alabama’s constitutions. Each one included impeachment language. 5 grounds for impeachment: willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, crimes of moral turpitude and or “intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors or narcotics.”
Governor is accused by House of corruption in office and neglect of duty.
Basically, Alabama impeachment rules are whatever the Legislature says they are, Sharman tells committee.
Sharman says no basis for judicial review on process or outcome regarding impeachment. That’s said even as Bentley’s lawyers have challenged the process in court.
What evidence standard should be used? Sharman explaining types to committee, options: Probable cause — mere probability of guilt; beyond a reasonable doubt – -applied in a criminal trial; in civil lawsuits — burden of proof preponderance of the evidence 51% certainty, more likely than not; or clear and convincing evidence.
Clear and convincing evidence — 75 percent certainty (basically).
What standard should be employed for evaluating evidence? Basically, Sharman repeats what’s in report … it’s up to each legislator.
Sharman: Practical reasons for committee to choose standard stronger than probable cause or preponderance of evidence, since impeachment in Alabama suspends officeholder, overrides election — even if temporarily.
Sharman says not aware of any legislature adopting beyond a reasonable doubt standard at this stage of impeachment proceedings. Standard for each of you ‘is an open one,’ Sharman tells committee.
Sharman recommends clear and convincing evidence standard be applied.
But, again repeats a less demanding standard for evidence would be ok.
Questions now from committee members, from Paul Beckman; Still have to apply constitutional rights, right?
Sharman, impeachment proceeding does not menace officeholder from liberty or life problem, no property interest in office. So. the officeholder has “slight due process rights.”
Second question, regarding rules of evidence.
Committee member Givan: Will you spell out 5 potential impeachment offenses?
Sharman, articles here only invoke 2. Willful neglect of duty, corruption in office. But committee could consider whether other charges could apply.
Again, other 3 are incompetency, crimes of moral turpitude and a drug or drinking problem.
Givan, regarding due process. You say there is no liberty, life or property issue. He’s got a job, there is an interest there. We’re going to make a determination if he violated duties. Since we’re going to evaluate, want some clarity on due process issue.
Sharman, good point on due process in employment.
Sharman continues … court cannot tell you how to run the rules of the committee. (regarding due process).
Marcel Black question — recommendation for burden of proof?
Sharman recommendation says should be seriously considered, but it’s up to you, we suggest consideration of ‘clear and convincing evidence’ standard.
Question from Thad McClammy: Can you be a judge as committee member i you called for articles of impeachment?
Sharman: More difficult to say if there is a conflict of interest, this is an extraordinary situation.
Sharman it would not be consistent with rules to force member not to vote, if he offered articles of impeachment.
Question from Rep. England. Emphasis on due process has been misplaced. A lot of problems we’ve run into come from the fact that we had rules saying we’d give due process .
England: Shouldn’t be any expectation Gov’s lawyer gets to question witnesses, gets witness lists.
England, should we remove requirements that give rights to opposing side?
Sharman, plans to discuss structure of investigation next. What they could and couldn’t do – witness and document access, etc.
Committee sent document requests in July and August to 22 entities. Some responded some didn’t. Then committee sent subpoenas to Mrs. Bentley, Bentley group ACEGov, Bentley family accountant, Rebekah Mason and husband and Mason co., among others.
Fact is avenues of investigation, witnesses, sources of documents, were not able to reach. May be areas that are fruitful and relevant to impeachment that we did not have access to.
In general, Gov. Bentley did not meaningfully cooperate with the committee’s investigation. Issued formal subpoena in September.
Subpoenas included lot of requests about relationship, personal and business regarding Bentley-Mason.
Bentley responses, 12k pgs largely irrelevant and 1600 pages. No documents in response to 20 of the topics.
Sharman walking through lack of cooperation from Bentley and his lawyers.
Sharman repeats point that’s in the report: Bentley’s non-cooperation with committee’s investigation can be grounds for impeachment.
Now he’s arguing committee has subpoena power, Governor’s lawyers insisted they didn’t have subpoena power. Interesting note, Committee Chairman Jones offered a bill during special session last summer explicitly granting committee subpoena power for impeachment probe. Bill died in committee.
Sharman says has power and duty to investigate. Power of impeachment should grant authority to inspect every document in every department. If not, power of impeachment would not be effective to correct abuse by executive.
Chairman gives members another chance to ask questions … Beckman: Gov’s office not cooperative. Any exceptions to having to respond?
The hearing is in recess until 1 p.m.
Judiciary Committee members mostly back in their seats, ready for 1 p.m. resumption of hearing.
Governor’s lawyers had until 1 p.m. to file brief with AL Supreme Court regarding their objections to hearing — lack of due process. No record of filing (least not yet). Not clear if they met the deadline, but it’s now past.
Sharman back before the committee. Starting with how much of the information Gov’s office provided that were blacked out-redacted.
Sharman talking about oddly redacted documents, illustrates difficulty he encountered in trying to get to “complete truth in regard to documents.”
Sharman set to deliver summary on investigation. Basically, now getting to meat of report.
Gov. directed state law enforcement to aid him at the expense of the state. Aimed to protect his reputation. Gov Bentley and Mrs. Mason had a relationship.
Mrs. Bentley with her top aide, Heather Hannah, recorded Bentley and Mason on phone. Bentley learned of tapes, then directed law enforcement to tasks that had no law enforcement purposes.
Including directing then-ALEA Chief Spencer Collier to research if they could arrest Hannah.
Bentley confronted Hannah twice. In the confrontation in parking lot of Gov’s mansion, he told her not only that she ‘better watch it.’ And his Governor, ‘people fall at his throne.’ And ‘she didn’t know what she was getting into.’
She regarded it as an (unsuccessful) intimidation attempt.
Bentley ordered Collier (on election night 2014) to confront Gov’s director of scheduling to find out if she knew about the tapes of Mason-Bentley phone calls. Collier came away convinced she knew nothing.
Bentley told chief of his protection detail Ray Lewis to go to Bentley’s son Paul to try and persuade him to turn over the tapes. Lewis went, Paul refused.
Sharman says it was Mrs. Bentley’s idea to record the calls using recorder on her iPhone. Her aide showed her how, recordings were made in March 2014.
Sharman: Bentley complained about time he had to spend meeting with legal staff, signing bills. Suggestion was he’d rather spend time with Mason.
Sharman says Ray Lewis, former head of Bentley security detail (who later sued the governor) kept detailed entries in a daily planner. Sharman says it puts in context that Lewis was being misused by Gov. regarding Mason.
Governor instructed Lewis to meet with staff members (basically regarding fear of gossip about Mason) and tell them ‘What happens in Gov’s office, stays in Gov’s office.’
Now Sharman talking about Lewis being asked by Gov. (this is in Lewis lawsuit) to break up with Mason for him.
Sharman talking about Gov.’s use of planes. He started using private planes for campaign — it seems to ensure Mason could fly with him. Lewis was concerned he’d lose job because he was telling Bentley he couldn’t travel in state vehicles with Mason, who wasn’t a state employee. She worked for campaign.
Sharman: Bentley was interested in creating a small, special investigations unit, seemed to be aimed at people who had knowledge of tape/affair. Report indicates there was some effort, but very little actual investigating.
Some concern that Bentley family accountant was involved in assisting Dianne Bentley, sent letter to Mason alleging affair. Was briefly investigated by ALEA agent.
Investigator told Collier that letter alleging affair sent to Mason, was at most ‘borderline misdemeanor’ and it apparenlty fizzled then.
Questions for Sharman. How many recordings were there?
Sharman: There were attempted recordings that failed. Only made aware of 2.
Who and what is Rebekah Mason? What was her role?
Sharman: Mrs. Mason same church with Gov. been in communications, they needed help to campaign. She’d been a state employee, then a vendor to Bentley campaign.
Does the executive branch have any policy regarding sexual harassment, bullying in the workplace, etc.
Sharman: Would be surprised if it didn’t.
Rep. Givan, ready to question, worried about minors hearing it
My concern is large majority of this report gets into issue of alleged affair. Not here to judge whether or not Gov had an affair or not with Rebekah Mason, could personally care less. Not my business.
If there was a misuse of funds, going back to elements of impeachment. How much was she getting paid?
Givan: How was she getting paid?
Heather Hannah issue, any type of reports she might have taken?
Sharman: not clear all sources of how Mason was being paid.
Question about Wanda’s desk. Why is it important?
Sharman: Basically was an impediment to his relationship, time with Mason. Basically desk was too close to his office door.
Who leased campaign airplanes?
Sharman says Bentley campaign provided no documents to committee.
Rep. Coleman question: Allowable expense for campaign to pay for Mason travel?
Sharman says couldn’t figure it out: campaign payments for flights, Mason, etc.
Sharman: There are questions about propriety or impropriety of Bentley Mason relationship. But, what’s important is relationship explains motive of repeated acts over time.
Kind of key argument in why so much time spent on affair.
Sharman: You may ask yourself, do I need to conclude is there an act, omission or event, so clearly beyond the pale, betrayal of public trust, so plainly wrong — that is what I need to impeach? Or, when confronted with pattern of events — individually maybe not impeachable matter — but taken together is impeachment appropriate?
Sharman: Focusing on pattern of misuse of law enforcement over time. Absolutely true, that although relationship probably provides more fodder for social media, immediate concern for committee are otherwise.
Sharman: Issue not a burlesque of text messages, but rather power, or its misuse.
Here, because of racy text messages and unbecoming phone conversations, some have analogized it to Clinton impeachment. Any impeachment involving sex and power will draw that, but better comparison is impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Sharman: Though Nixon’s scope well beyond Bentley report, both used resources, both stonewalled the committee, punished people who didn’t aid them.
Repeated abuses of power by one who holds public office, needs prompt action, Sharman said.
Hearing in recess – expected to resume at 2:30pm.
Chairman maintains recess, advises members to stay close.
We understand the committee just recessed again. Everyone seems to be in a “hurry up and wait” mode due to multiple sources saying Gov. Bentley will resign this afternoon.