MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) – After a year-long investigation, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Gov. Robert Bentley violated state ethics and campaign finance laws through an alleged affair with a former staffer.
Last March, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a report with the Alabama Ethics Commission asking it to determine if Gov. Bentley used state resources to carry on an “illicit sexual relationship” with Rebekah Mason, his former senior political advisor.
The alleged affair between the two came to light when Alabama’s former law enforcement director, Spencer Collier, was fired by Bentley for alleged misuse of state funds.
During a press conference following his termination, Collier said he had personal knowledge of messages between Bentley and Mason that were “sexual in nature” as well as an audio recording of “an inappropriate sexual conversation.”
At the time, Bentley said in his own press conference that he made a “mistake” and apologized for “inappropriate comments” to Mason, but denied having a physical relationship with his former aide.
In his report to the ethics commission, Ziegler stated that Mason was paid by the nonprofit Alabama Council for Excellent Government while she was Bentley’s “closest and most powerful advisor.” Ziegler alleged in his report that Mason was required to register as a lobbyist based on her activities in influencing state government while being paid by a private entity, but she never did.
Ziegler said, “Either Mrs. Mason is a lobbyist or she is a government official. If she is a lobbyist, she has violated the law by failing to register and file reports. If she is government official, she has violated the law by improperly receiving private funds.”
In his report, Ziegler alleges Bentley used state aircraft, motor vehicles and security personnel to further his affair with Mason.
“The physical and personal nature of the relationship is made clear by [a] well-publicized audiotape in which Bentley speaks about groping Mrs. Mason’s breasts and locking the door while engaging in physical activity” the report states.
Gov. Bentley responded to the Ziegler report by saying, “I have always complied with the ethics laws of the state. In fact, I voluntarily release my tax returns to the public every year in a spirit of openness and transparency. I have always and will continue to cooperate with the Alabama Ethics Commission.”
In February, Secretary of State John Merrill reportedly spoke to the ethics commission about legal fees for Mason that were paid by the Bentley campaign.
Bentley’s lawyer William Athanas claimed in a letter to the commission that the payments were appropriate and consistent with the Fair Campaign Practices Act, which allows “expenditures that are reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held.”
In a Wednesday press release announcing its decision, the ethics commission stated that it issued more subpoenas for this case than any other since it was given subpoena power.
In all, it said it interviewed more than 45 witnesses and analyzed over 33,000 documents during the investigation into Bentley’s alleged affair.
Finding probable cause that the 74-year-old governor violated the Alabama Ethics Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act, the commission referred the case to the Montgomery County District Attorney for further investigation and potential prosecution.
The press release states that the possible violations are Class B felonies with a prison sentence of between two and 20 years per violation. The commission stated that it is prohibited from any further comment on the issue because matters are still ongoing.
“We strongly disagree with the result, but I think it is important to keep in mind that it is a finding of probable cause, not a finding of violation,” Athanas said in response to the announcement.
Wednesday’s decision comes on the heels of another ongoing investigation against Bentley, after 23 lawmakers filed impeachment articles accusing him of neglect of duty and corruption.