Alabama Governor Refuses To Step Down, Faces Impeachment Hearings
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley insists he will stay in the job.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERT BENTLEY: I do not plan to resign. I have done nothing illegal.
INSKEEP: So state lawmakers today begin hearings on whether to impeach him. Bentley is accused of misusing his office to cover up an alleged affair with a political aide. And we're going to talk about this with NPR's Debbie Elliott who's on the line. Hi, Debbie.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what happens today?
ELLIOTT: Well, the House Judiciary Committee is going to begin a hearing to consider two articles of impeachment against Bentley. He's accused of willful neglect of office and corruption. Now, this scandal has been slowly building since 2014. Then early last year, we sort of hit this peak when these tapes came out where you hear the 74-year-old governor making sexually explicit comments to his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. He's now accused of misusing both state and campaign resources to further that inappropriate relationship in a cover-up.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should just try to be clear on what's happening here. Is this like the federal constitutional process for removing a president that's essentially up to the legislature? And they get started, and at some point they hold a trial if it gets that far? Is that right?
ELLIOTT: Exactly. This is in the House. It's a hearing that starts in committee. It'll go to the full House. If they agree to impeach him, then it'll be up to the Alabama Senate whether to kick him out of office.
INSKEEP: So how much does the governor actually admit to doing here?
ELLIOTT: Well, he has said he has made some personal mistakes. He had claimed it was not a physical affair. He is now characterizing this as a political persecution. There was this hastily called news conference last Friday morning, and all the observers thought maybe he was going to step down. But instead, he reiterated that he had not broken the law and that he had only struggled with his personal mistakes. Here he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BENTLEY: I asked God to take these struggles and to help me carry these burdens. And I found freedom in that.
ELLIOTT: Now, you hear him there very much speaking the language of his religion. He's a former Baptist deacon. Now, while he was making that plea to Alabamians, his lawyers were busy in court trying to get a delay in the proceedings. But they have failed, and things are set to go this morning.
INSKEEP: But you said the accusation is not strictly about his personal life but about public actions, that there was some kind of misuse of state or campaign resources. What's the evidence against him?
ELLIOTT: You know, there was this investigative report that was released on Friday afternoon, and it accuses him of using state resources, including law enforcement, to hide the affair and to protect his reputation in a process quote, "characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia."
INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. So he was telling other people on the state payroll to - what? - alter what they said or help him...
ELLIOTT: To hide things. He was threatening if they released the tapes. There were some interesting things alleged in this investigation. There were also lots of text messages between he and Rebekah Mason. There was testimony from Bentley's ex-wife, Dianne, who says she found out about the affair when Governor Bentley mistakenly sent her a text that read, I love you, Rebekah, with a red rose emoji.
But the - it's clear here the question is whether Mason was paid from campaign funds at a nonprofit set up by the governor. Is that right? He solicited donations from key players in Alabama business and politics to pay for that. So there are some really interesting ethical questions at play here.
INSKEEP: OK - and just the beginning of the impeachment process. Debbie, thanks as always.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.