A scandal that hounded Robert Bentley for more than a year with little resolution finally brought him down today, abruptly ending his time as Alabama’s 53rd governor just past the halfway mark of his second term.
Shortly after 5 p.m. today, the governor entered the Old House Chamber in the state Capitol, site of his seven annual State of the State addresses, and announced what cabinet members, staffers and reporters waiting there already knew – that his time as governor was done.
“I can no longer allow my family, my dear friends, my dedicated staff and cabinet, to be subjected to the consequences that my past actions have brought upon them,” Bentley said during a short address.
He said being governor was the greatest honor of his life and repeatedly said he loved the state and its people. He admitted mistakes.
“Though I have committed myself to working to improve the lives of the people of our state, there have been times when I have let you and our people down, and I’m sorry,” Bentley said.
He thanked his staff, cabinet members and state agency leaders several times, promised his administration would ensure a smooth transition of power to Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey and left the chamber without taking questions, his voice choking slightly with emotion at the end.
Ivey, the automatic successor under the state Constitution, took the oath to become governor upon Bentley’s resignation.
Ivey appeared at a ceremonial swearing-in in the Capitol about an hour after Bentley’s appearance.
In a short speech, Ivey got cheers and thunderous applause when she promised her administration would be transparent, open and honest.
Before making his resignation speech in the Capitol, Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations of the campaign finance law under a deal with the attorney general’s office. He agreed not to seek public office again. He will serve one year’s probation, perform 100 hours of community service, repay $8,912 he used from his campaign account to pay legal fees for former advisor Rebekah Mason and forfeit the remaining $36,912 in his campaign account to the state treasury.
“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.
Today’s developments were a dramatic turn. But coming on the heels of a whirlwind of setbacks for Bentley over six days, they were not shocking.
This morning, even before the House Judiciary Committee could begin its much anticipated and historic impeachment hearings, news surfaced that resignation negotiations were in the works.
Bentley’s chances of finishing his second term had spiraled downward since last Wednesday.
That’s when the Alabama Ethics Commission, after investigating for more than a year, issued four findings of probable cause that Bentley violated the campaign finance law and ethics law.
Then on Thursday and Friday came calls for Bentley’s resignation from Alabama’s top two legislators, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Speaker Mac McCutcheon, who previously had been measured in their comments about the scandal. Both said it was time for Bentley to go for the good of the state.
Bentley’s lawyers tried to push back against the mounting pressure, downplaying the ethics findings and going to court in an attempt to block the release of the impeachment investigation report by Judiciary Committee Special Counsel Jack Sharman.
Kay Ivey, the first female Republican in Alabama history to hold the office of Lieutenant Governor, will be only the second woman to serve as Governor of the state.
But the Judiciary Committee released the report Friday afternoon. It said Bentley used his security staff and other law enforcement to further his own interests, mainly efforts to stop the release of recordings of his phone calls that revealed the nature of his relationship with former advisor Mason.
Attached to the report were exhibits that included dozens of text message exchanges between Bentley and Mason expressing their love and devotion for each other that Bentley accidentally sent former first lady Dianne Bentley.
Sharman, speaking to the committee this morning, said a pattern of the governor’s abuse of his power, motivated by his desire to hide the recordings from the public and protect his reputation, was the most significant finding in the report.
Speaker McCutcheon said the combination of the ethics findings and Sharman’s report had significantly raised the likelihood that the Legislature was prepared to remove Bentley from office.
“I think all of that combined together was an indicator that it would have been a good possibility he would be impeached,” McCutcheon said.
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.
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.
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.
Information provided by Al.com