The affair allegations swirling around Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is a multilayered scandal, involving sex, money, and corruption. It resembles more of an unfolding soap opera than how politics should really work.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality for Alabama, a state that prides itself for its high morals and at the same time has had to confront a burgeoning number of corrupt elected officials.
The latest and gravest among them is the scandal surrounding Robert Bentley, the state’s two-term governor, famed for his church deacon persona. On March 22, the state’s largest news organization, AL.com, quoted the state’s former top law enforcement official saying that Bentley had carried on a clandestine affair with his top aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, and there were recordings to prove it.
By the next day, a recording surfaced of Bentley making sexually suggestive comments on the phone to a woman he called "Rebekah."
"When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you and I put my hands on your breasts," he can be heard saying on the tape. A little later: "If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re going to have to start locking the door."
In a press conference that day, Bentley acknowledged he had made inappropriate comments to Mason, but he denied carrying on any sort of a sexual relationship. In the past week, he has also steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of resigning his office.
"At times in the past, have I said things that I should not have said? Absolutely, that’s what I’m saying today," Bentley said at the press conference. He insisted that he had broken no state laws during his friendship with Mason, which would be possible grounds for his impeachment.
That hasn’t stopped the state ethics commission from opening an inquiry into the situation; several other state agencies refused to say whether they were looking into possible wrongdoing, too. But beyond the ick factor, how might a governor's alleged affair cross over into criminal activity?
The basic story is a good old-fashioned sex scandal
This past fall, Dianne Bentley, the governor’s wife, filed for divorce after 50 years of marriage. It was the first tip-off to reporters in the state that rumors of an affair between Bentley and Mason might hold some water.
More than a year earlier, in August 2014, Bentley was attending a business conference when he accidentally dropped his cellphone. A law enforcement official happened to see a text message of a sexual nature on it from none other than Mason, which he reported to his boss. That’s how Spencer Collier, the then-head of Alabama's Law Enforcement Agency, learned about the affair. He was the first to report it to AL.com.
A few days later, Collier first heard the recording that’s since become public — where Bentley speaks of touching Mason’s breasts. He told AL.com that the recording was made by Bentley’s family member "hoping for an intervention."
Collier told AL.com that he confronted Bentley about the scandal late in 2014, who admitted it was happening and promised to stop.
"I made Governor Bentley aware of the recording that I heard," Collier told the New York Times. "I told Governor Bentley there was no need to try and explain it for anything other than it was. It was very obvious that it was sexual in nature."
Mason, who served as Bentley’s campaign manager, transitioned into a job as his top political advisor at the Alabama Capitol. She held so much sway with Bentley that people referred to her derisively as the "de facto governor."
In September, it came to light that Mason was not on the state's payroll— Bentley was paying her salary through a 501(c)(4) organization. That in itself does not signal wrongdoing, but it means that Mason was able to operate at the Alabama Capitol with virtually no transparency.
The two also appear to have taken concerted steps to hide their relationship from public view. Bentley apparently bought multiple "burner" phones from a Best Buy in Tuscaloosa to avoid surveillance. He allegedly rented a private plane to avoid its passenger manifest, which might have included Mason, from becoming public.
And Bentley recently confirmed to the Times that he and Mason shared a safety deposit box at a bank in Montgomery, the state capital.
The scandal is about much more than (alleged) sex
The timing of Collier’s revelation is far from coincidental. A month earlier, Bentley placed Collier, then the head of Alabama’s Law Enforcement Agency, on medical leave.
Collier was due to undergo back surgery, but the notification of his forced leave also followed Collier’s refusal to follow Bentley’s orders. Bentley had forbidden him from submitting a sworn statement in the ongoing court battle over the indictment of the Alabama House speaker in a separate corruption case. (The House speaker is facing 23 felony charges of corruption, but he is also a political ally of the governor.)
Collier said he submitted the affidavit because not doing so would amount to lying to a grand jury. "I told Governor Bentley that I loved him like a father and that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him, except lie to a grand jury," Collier told the Times.
Then the new head of Alabama’s Law Enforcement Agency — the same man whom Collier claimed saw the inappropriate text message on Bentley’s phone but who is denying he ever saw anything — opened an investigation into management of the agency under Collier’s watch. The investigation turned up "a number of concerns, including the possible misuse of state funds."
That finding was announced on March 22, leading Bentley to fire Collier outright. That’s the same day Collier went to the press. (For the record, Collier denies any wrongdoing at the agency.)
A lot of people in Alabama want Bentley to resign
The fallout from the scandal has been swift and severe. Bentley was once revered as a man with highly public Christian morals — he served as a deacon at his church in Tuscaloosa, which Mason and her husband also attended. Now an informal online AL.com poll of 30,000 readers finds that more than 90 percent want him to resign.
After the audio of Bentley’s conversation with Mason surfaced, Mason swiftly resigned. Ironically, her husband, John Mason, is still on the state's payroll as the state’s director of faith-based initiatives.
But Alabama lawmakers, reflecting the public mood, don’t want the resignations to end there. Lawmakers, led by Republicans, are looking into ways to begin impeachment proceedings or set up a recall. Those efforts are unlikely to pan out — the Alabama lawmakers can hardly agree on anything, despite Republicans holding supermajorities in both Houses. And their time will quickly begin to be consumed by the trial of the House speaker, which is proceeding on a separate track.
But lawmakers and investigators will continue to look for possible instances of Bentley using state resources to carry out (or cover up) his affair, which would amount to a criminal offense.
"It has not been specifically proven," AL.com’s Leada Gore told the Washington Post in a conversation about the unfolding scandal. "It has certainly been alluded to that he's used state resources and property and perhaps personnel to carry this out."
It may be that investigators will try to ensnare him on a related charge — like allegedly attempting to force Collier to lie to a grand jury. But the widespread sentiment that Bentley must go reflects two undeniable truths: Alabama has no tolerance of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is by no means immune to it.