MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Republicans who pledged honest government when they won control of the state now have what might be their toughest job yet: picking up the pieces after a third top GOP leader was run out of office in only nine months.
Gov. Robert Bentley pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges and resigned Monday rather than face the possibility of more severe charges and impeachment by the Legislature, which was reviewing allegations linked to his alleged affair with a female aide.
Appearing sullen during a plea hearing and later proclaiming his love for the state during a farewell address, Bentley joined House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore on the sidelines of power after being forced from positions atop a branch of government in Montgomery.
Hubbard was convicted of felony ethics violations last June and is free on bond while appealing. Moore is suspended from his job as the head of the state’s judiciary after being convicted in September of violating judicial ethics with an order against same-sex marriage.
Bentley’s replacement, GOP Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, promised an open administration after months of news reports and rumors about the 74-year-old governor’s alleged affair with an adviser nearly three decades his junior.
“It will be transparent. And it will be honest,” Ivey said.
But sensing an opening in a deeply conservative state where Christian values play well at election time, state Democrats pounced.
“Republican corruption has spread like kudzu throughout our state,” Democratic Party chair Nancy Worley said in a statement.
She added: “To get elected, Republicans told Alabamians they were the party of integrity and family values, yet they govern by fattening their own pockets, having love affairs, and disrespecting the founding principles of our government.”
Alabama’s GOP Steering Committee had called for Bentley’s resignation, as had the Republican leaders of both the House and Senate.
Bentley, a 74-year-old family-values conservative who won two terms partly because of his reputation for moral rectitude, was first engulfed in scandal a year ago after recordings surfaced of him making sexually charged comments to 45-year-old political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
Last week, the Alabama Ethics Commission cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws and referred the matter to prosecutors who could have sought felony charges tougher than the misdemeanors to which Bentley pleaded guilty.
Just days later, an investigative report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee 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 leading to a vote on possible impeachment, but Bentley’s departure stopped the process cold. He invoked his Christian faith during a farewell address in the Capitol.
“There’ve been times that I let you and our people down, and I’m sorry for that,” Bentley said in the old House chamber of Alabama’s Capitol after he pleaded guilty.
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, but he said he plans to help the state in some, unspecified way.
Ivey 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.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama.