How Alabama’s ‘Luv Guv’ Broke New Ground in a Scandal-Plagued State

Even after a year of titillating revelations, the release on Friday afternoon of the special investigator’s report on the affair between the 74-year-old governor and his much-younger and still-married aide still had the capacity to amaze the most seasoned Alabamian political observers.

The bar was high after a tape came out last March of Robert Bentley, the one-time Sunday school teacher and dermatologist, on which the governor was heard awkwardly cooing into the phone to Rebekah Mason, his then 40-something senior political adviser:

“When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you and I put my hands on your breasts and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close, hey, I love that too.” That recording, made surreptitiously in 2014 by Bentley’s suspicious wife, was enough to give the unremarkable second-term Republican a burst of national notoriety as the “Luv Guv.” No small feat in the middle of a presidential campaign featuring Donald Trump.

But Friday’s 112-page report plus exhibits, commissioned by the state’s House Judiciary Committee, was so chock full of gems it practically overwhelmed the state’s newspaper sites and political blogs, which brimmed with examples of the technologically inept governor’s forgetting to use his “Rebekah phone” instead of his government-issue device and more than once sending his wife, Dianne, text messages filigreed with rose emojis saying “I love you, Rebekah.” There were even ready-for-primetime memes: “Bless our hearts. And other parts.”

Those cringe-worthy details helped cost Bentley his marriage and estranged him from his family, but they aren’t what will the Judiciary Committee will concern itself with when it convenes today in the capital to decide whether to forward impeachment charges to the full House. The impeachment proceedings against Bentley allege he willfully neglected his duties and acted corruptly by using state resources in an attempt to protect his image and prevent his relationship with Mason from going public.

If the state House of Representatives impeaches him, Bentley would be suspended pending a state Senate trial to decide if he should be removed from office. The governor, whose second term is scheduled to end in 2018, also faces possible felony indictment on ethics charges related to the affair and cover-up allegations. Bentley and Mason both adamantly deny ethics or criminal violations. They haven’t even admitted having a physical affair, which suggests the possibility that the governor might lose his job for a relationship that he insists was less than it appears.

Mason, a former Miss Alabama contestant, ex-television reporter and communications consultant, resigned last year. But her husband of nearly 20 years, Jon Mason, still has his job as director of Bentley’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. Both accompanied Bentley to President Trump’s inauguration in January. In recent days, leaders in the state House, Senate and Republican party urged the governor to resign. But on Friday, a hastily called press conference on the steps of the capitol, Bentley repeated his vow he would not step down. With his head bowed and birds chirping in the background, Bentley warbled his dismay that people won’t quit exposing “the intimate and embarrassing details of my personal life, my personal struggles….I really don’t understand why they want to do that.”

But by Monday, rumors of a pending resignation—perhaps as early as Wednesday—were swirling anew around the state, lending an air of unpredictability to a political script of malfeasance that has tended to feature greed more than lust. This Southern Gothic tale—Baptist deacon turned legislator wins improbable election as conservative do-gooder only to reveal himself as unlikely lovestruck stud—has managed to surprise a state whose reputation for political corruption is exceeded only by its reputation as a college football powerhouse.

Indeed, Bentley could be the third top Alabama official in a year to be removed from office. Mike Hubbard, the former House Speaker who was convicted in June and imprisoned for using his office for personal gain. In September, Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended for the rest of his term after he ordered state judges to ignore a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

What is it about Alabama? The concentration of power among a few—the Legislature, the university system, major utilities and a collection of influential businesses—provides a major explanation, said John Archibald, longtime columnist for the Birmingham News and al.com, who has broken many of the revelations in the Bentley scandal. “Part of it is the century-long influence of what we would call the Big Mules,” Archibald said. “So much concentration of power just breeds corruption.

***

It all started at church.

Rebekah and Jon Mason attended Sunday school classes Bentley taught at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. Bentley, a dermatologist and nondescript state legislator, was considering a bid for governor. Mason told Bentley he had no chance.

Before long, she was Bentley’s campaign spokeswoman. Mason helped hone his image as an honest alternative to the political corruption festering in Montgomery. After his 2010 victory she became Bentley’s communications director, leaving the administration in mid-2013 to join his re-election campaign.

Around then Dianne Bentley began noticing her once-devoted husband was no longer as affectionate. It didn’t ease her suspicions that Mason often stayed in the pool house at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery, rather than commute 100 miles to her family’s home in Tuscaloosa.

In February 2014 the now second-term governor and Mason were part of a state entourage attending the National Governor’s Association meeting in Washington. When the group went to dinner one night, Bentley and Mason kept exchanging texts in front of the First Lady.

“I can’t take my eyes off of you,” one from the governor read, according to the investigator’s report.

During that trip to Washington, Bentley mistakenly thought Mason was knocking on his hotel-room door. Clad in boxer shorts, the spindly governor answered only to discover a hotel worker, not Mason, last week’s investigative report revealed.

It’s an image Alabamians can’t unsee.

Another time, Dianne Bentley received a text message from her husband. “I love you Rebekah,” it read, followed by a red-rose emoji.
The now-infamous telephone recording was made during a trip the Bentleys took to the Gulf coast in March 2014. Dianne Bentley went for a walk on the beach but left her phone behind, set to record. A minute later it captured the governor on his phone verbally groping Mason.

It was months before the governor realized his wife was reading their texts, which synched from his phone to a state-issue iPad Bentley had given her. By May 2015, Bentley and Mason were using disposable “burner” phones.

Staff members, who took to calling Mason “Flim Flam,” also noticed the governor and Mason spending long periods alone behind closed doors. Bentley had a habit of blocking out hours on his calendar with the word “Hold.” One staffer told the House investigator he had seen Mason leaving the governor’s office with tousled hair and adjusting her clothes.

Dianne Bentley and one of their sons confronted Bentley about the relationship. In May 2014, the governor sent his security chief, Ray Lewis, to break up with Mason but Bentley ultimately refused to dump her. He also tasked Lewis with tracking down the recording, which he failed to do, according to the report.

When staff started gossiping, Bentley dispatched Lewis. “What happens in the governor’s office,” Lewis told them, “stays in the governor’s office.” But as the scandal wore on Bentley developed his own vindictive streak, according to the report, warning his staff that people “bow to his throne.” He even threatened one of his wife’s staff members, whom he suspected of having distributed the infamous recording, that he would make sure she never worked in the state again. Someone even scrawled “Bitch Die” on her car windows.

***

It gets stranger.

The Alabama House of Representatives launched its impeachment process in April 2016. But days before November’s presidential election, then-state attorney general Luther Strange asked legislators to hold off due to “related work” in his own office.

In February 2017, Bentley appointed Strange to the U.S. Senate to replace Jeff Sessions after his confirmation to President Trump’s cabinet. Columnists and some state officials howled that it stunk like swamp gas. Both Bentley and Strange deny any connection or deal.

Roughly two months later, Bentley is back on the hot seat.

If impeached and convicted, he would not be the first Alabama governor kicked out of office. That distinction belongs to Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He was automatically removed after his 1993 felony conviction on state charges he converted $200,000 from an inaugural fund for personal use. Hunt, who was not impeached, was fined and sentenced to probation.

Nor, in the unlikely event the criminal allegations lead to prison time for Bentley, would he be the first Alabama governor behind bars.
Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was governor from 1999-2003, just got out of prison for his federal corruption conviction in 2006—a prosecution that became a national cause after Siegelman and supporters claimed it was politically motivated.

The state Ethics Commission alleges Bentley committed four felonies, which each carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and $20,000 fines. The charges have been forwarded to a county district attorney.

They include allegations he improperly used campaign funds to pay a legal bill for Mason and made a loan to his campaign outside the permissible window. Another concerns a 2015 trip that Bentley, Mason and others took on a state plane to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas.

Word began spreading around Alabama that Bentley, Mason and others also attended a Celine Dion concert there. The RGA sent Bentley’s campaign fund a check for $11,640, which the fund used to reimburse the state. That donation was outside the permissible window for campaign contributions, the ethics commission alleges.

When he won his first election in 2010, emerging from the shadow of a nasty fight between the erstwhile favorites, Bentley generally was viewed as kind and genial, a devoted family man who had pledged he would not accept a dime to represent the people of Alabama. Seven years later, he’s generally viewed as both pathetic and vindictive. The investigative reports details allegations he tried to intimidate subordinates to keep the affair secret. When Bentley perceived Lewis, his security chief, and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency head Spencer Collier as threats, he fired them and launched smear campaigns, the report says. It turns out this wasn’t the smartest tactic Bentley could have employed for keeping his affair out of the public eye.

The day after he was fired on March 22, 2016, Collier called a press conference and confirmed the rumors about Bentley and Mason. A political blog released one of the Dianne Bentley’s recordings. By evening, the affair was national news. The Luv Guv was a comic punchline. The recording includes what might well be his political epitaph: “If we’re going to do what we did the other day we’re going to have to start locking the door.”

This week we may learn which side of the locked door Bentley will be on.

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