Alabama governor resigns amid allegations of sex scandal

Last Updated Apr 10, 2017 8:11 PM EDT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Gov. Robert Bentley resigned Monday rather than face impeachment and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign violations that arose during an investigation of his alleged affair with a top aide.

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Gov. Robert Bentley shown in a mugshot taken on Mon., April 10, 2017.

Montgomery County Sheriff's Office

In a remarkable fall, the mild-mannered 74-year-old Republican and one-time Baptist deacon stepped down as the sex-tinged scandal gathered force over the past few days. Legislators turned up the pressure by opening impeachment hearings Monday. Last week, the Alabama Ethics Commission cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws and referred the matter to prosecutors.

“There have been times I have let you and our people down,” Bentley said Monday in the old House chamber of Alabama’s Capitol after he pleaded guilty to charges of failing to file a major contribution report and using campaign money for personal use.

The violations were discovered during the investigation of his affair but were not directly related to it.

“I’ve not always made the right choices or said the right things -- while I’ve sometimes failed, I’ve always lived up to the high expectations the people place of the person who holds this esteemed office,” he said.

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A look at Gov. Robert Bentley’s resignation letter from Mon., April 10, 2017 after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.

“The consequences of my mistakes have been grievously unfair to you and my loyal staff, my Cabinet and all of our agencies who have continued your exemplary service to our people ... in the face of difficult circumstances,” Bentley continued.

“I can no longer allow my family, my dear friends, my dedicated staff and my Cabinet be subjected to the consequences my past actions have brought upon them,” he said. “The time has come for me to look at new ways to serve the people of our great state. I have decided that it’s time for me to step down as governor.”

“Thank you and goodbye -- and I love this state with the bottom of my heart and the people who live here,” Bentley said.

His staff gave him a standing ovation as he entered and exited the old House chamber.

The violations were discovered during the investigation of his affair but were not directly related to it.

Bentley’s successor is Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, who became Alabama’s second female governor. The first was Lurleen Wallace, wife of segregationist and four-term Gov. George C. Wallace. She ran as a surrogate for her still-powerful husband in 1966 when he couldn’t seek re-election because of term limits. She won, but died in office in 1968.

“The Ivey administration will be open. It will be transparent. And it will be honest,” Ivey said.

CBS affiliate WKRG captured video as the governor left the State Capitol on Monday and entered a black SUV.

EXCLUSIVE: BENTLEY SEEN LEAVING CAPITOL -- http://bit.ly/2pn8tyg

Posted by WKRG on Monday, April 10, 2017

Former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, who a day after being fired by Bentley last year held a news conference where he publicly revealed the affair accusation, said he feels vindicated by the resignation and plea deal.

Collier held a blockbuster press conference last year a day after being fired by Bentley. He said he had confronted the governor about his relationship with a staffer.

Bentley’s resignation follows the ouster of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who left office in 2016 after being convicted on ethics charges, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended from his post last year over an order opposing same-sex marriage.

Bentley, a staunch family-values conservative who won two terms partly because of his reputation for moral rectitude, was first engulfed in scandal last year after recordings surfaced of him making sexually charged comments to 45-year-old political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason.

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An undated photo shows Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who resigned as Bentley’s senior policy adviser on Wed., March 30, 2016.

WAKA

An investigative report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee and released last week said Bentley encouraged an “atmosphere of intimidation” to keep the story under wraps and directed law enforcement officers to track down and seize the recordings. The report portrayed the governor as paranoid and obsessed with trying to keep the relationship secret.

The committee on Monday started what was expected to be days of hearings.

In court, Bentley appeared sullen and looked down at the floor. One misdemeanor charge against Bentley stemmed from a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign in November that investigators said he failed to report until January. State law says major contributions should be reported within a few days. The other charge stemmed from his use of campaign funds to pay nearly $9,000 in legal bills for Mason last year.

“He did what he did and he deserves now to be called a criminal,” said Ellen Brooks, a retired district attorney overseeing the state investigation.

The plea agreement specified that Bentley must surrender campaign funds totaling nearly $37,000 within a week and perform 100 hours of community service as a physician. The dermatologist also cannot seek public office again.

Bentley lawyer Ross Garber had argued that impeachment should be reserved for only the “most grave misconduct,” noting that only two U.S. governors have been impeached since 1929, and both were indicted for serious felonies.

“It is not unusual for elected officials to have ethics and campaign finance issues. In fact, many governors face these things. It is very rare, though, for legislators to try to leverage those issues to impeach a governor. In fact, it is simply not done,” Garber told The Associated Press in an email.

Garber also represented former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and ex-Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut during impeachment proceedings.

The last U.S. governor to be impeached was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009. He was removed from office and is now serving a prison sentence for conspiring to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The investigative report contained text messages that the governor sent to Mason. They were intercepted by Bentley’s then-wife, Dianne Bentley, who was able to read the messages because they also showed up on the governor’s state-issued iPad, which he had given her.

“I sure miss you. I need you. I want you. You are the only one,” one message read.

Dianne Bentley divorced her husband in 2015 after 50 years of marriage.

At one point, according to the investigative report, the governor sent the head of his security detail to fetch the recording from his son, Paul Bentley, who responded: “You ain’t getting it.”

The former first lady’s chief of staff also charged that Bentley threatened her job because he believed she had helped his wife make the recordings.

The Alabama Ethics Commission last week cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws. The matter has been referred to prosecutors.

On Friday, the governor made a somber plea for forgiveness from the steps of the Alabama Capitol, acknowledging that he had let people down but promising that he had done nothing illegal or anything to merit his removal from office.

He has denied having a physical relationship with his former aide, though in some of the recordings he talked about the pleasure he got from fondling her breasts.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate have called on Bentley to resign, as has the Alabama Republican Party’s steering committee.

“It’s really time for us to look ahead and start moving forward on more pressing matters,” Republican Sen. Cam Ward said. “It was a constant distraction, one that was never going to change, and it’s time for us to get back to work.”

Two of Bentley’s predecessors in the past three decades have been convicted of crimes: Republican Guy Hunt in the 1990s, for misusing funds, and Democrat Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery in 2006.

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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley smiles as he speaks during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Montgomery, Ala.

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson