MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley resigned Monday rather than face impeachment and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign violations that arose during the investigation of alleged affair with a top aide.
The mild-mannered 74-year-old Republican and one-time Baptist deacon was at peace with the decision to step down, according to a former administration member who was not authorized to release the information and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The sex-tinged scandal gathered force over the past few days and turned up on 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.
In a court hearing, Bentley appeared sullen and looked down at the floor as he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to file a major contribution report and converting campaign contributions to personal to use.
The agreement specifies that Bentley must surrender campaign funds totaling $36,912 within a week and perform 100 hours of community service as a physician. He also cannot seek public office again.
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.
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.
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 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.” Dianne Bentley secretly recorded her husband by leaving her phone on while she went for a walk.
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.
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.
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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