MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In the mortuary of disaster that is Alabama politics, it is important to note that Gov. Dr. Robert J. Bentley is still in charge, for now.
The 74-year-old, balding grandfather and star of sexy phone chats to the senior political adviser three decades his junior appears to be at the center of a complex web of deceit, betrayal and mendacity that falls somewhere between the better parts of the Old Testament and the steamy Southern plays of Tennessee Williams.
Nor is it, by any means, over.
Reporters hound Bentley at his every appearance, asking about his $1,800 burner cellphones and the use of a state helicopter to pick up his forgotten wallet. “I’m the governor. And I had to have money. I had to buy something to eat,” Bentley said last Thursday by way of explanation.
The state House is expected to vote next week to set up an impeachment committee, and the lieutenant governor has been blunt: She’s ready to take over as soon as she’s needed.
The state’s former top cop, Spencer Collier, plans to file a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit next week. Once a staunch ally of Bentley, he claims the governor sacked him because he refused an illegal order to not cooperate with a grand jury investigation involving the speaker of the House, who goes on trial next month on 23 felony counts of ethics violations.
As calls for the conservative Republican’s resignation mount, the variety of investigations underway are heading into “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” territory.
“Robert Bentley should not be sitting in the governor’s office,” says Allen Farley, the Republican House member who last year asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate Bentley’s use of state resources to carry out his alleged affair. The woman in question is Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a 44-year-old married mother of three.
“He’s the state of Alabama’s spokesperson, our representative,” Farley said in an interview. “And this is someone I want negotiating on behalf of the state? I don’t think so.”
When Bentley was first elected in 2010, he was a popular, soft-spoken dermatologist, devout Baptist deacon, father of four and grandfather of eight, and married for half a century. He said he wouldn’t take his $120,000 a year salary until the state reached full employment, and he hasn’t.
One year into his second term, he is divorced, estranged from his family, expelled from his church, ostracized by his party, pilloried by the public and at the center of an alleged sex and abuse-of-power scandal that may drive him from office.
“It’s like King David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament,” says Johnny Mack Morrow, a Democrat from rural Franklin County, another former ally of the governor turned harsh critic. “Or maybe like Percy Sledge’s song, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ “
On a leaked phone recording that went viral, the septuagenarian governor tells Mason explicitly of his yearnings.
“You’d kiss me? I love that. You know I do love that. You know what? When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close. Hey, I love that, too.”
The governor has admitted to an “inappropriate relationship; both have denied a physical affair. Throughout it all, he continues to insist he did nothing illegal.
The Southern politician with an outsize personality and appetites to match is by turns a staple and cliche of the region. Lyndon Johnson in Texas, Huey Long and Edwin Edwards in Louisiana, Theodore Bilbo in Mississippi, Bill Clinton in Arkansas – the list is as long as one wishes to make it.
And the Roll Tide/War Eagle state that likes to advertise itself as the Heart of Dixie is, after all, accustomed to state-capital shenanigans. Big Jim “Bait a Trap with a Blonde” Folsom presided as governor here, as did George “Segregation Forever” Wallace.
More recently, backwoods-preacher-turned-governor Guy Hunt, R, was convicted of crimes in office in 1993. Gov. Don Siegelman, D, in office a decade later, was convicted of bribery and is still serving time.
In Montgomery, people aren’t surprised to have a governor mired in a sex-and-power scandal. They’re just astonished it’s Bentley.
Tall and thin, possessed of a mild manner and quiet disposition, he named his four sons after biblical apostles. He came to the state capital as a legislator in 2002, at 60 the oldest freshman Republican legislator elected in that cycle.
He struck up a friendship with Collier, at 32, the youngest freshman Republican elected that year. Bentley made no waves. He did not go out on the town.
He certainly did not impress anyone as a ladies’ man. Steve Flowers, the state’s veteran political commentator and author of “Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories,” compares Bentley to Goober and Gomer Pyle, small-town unsophisticates in the long-ago television series set in the South. Mark Childress, the novelist from Monroeville and author of “Crazy in Alabama,” independently suggested the milquetoast shop owner Sam Drucker in “Petticoat Junction.”
“He was a just good, moral person,” said Morrow, the Democratic representative, “decent, likeable, very low key. He and his wife, Dianne, they were good people.”
Collier and Bentley held similar political views and became close friends over eight years together in the legislature, in a father-son sort of way, Collier said in a news conference after he was fired. They and their wives often had dinner after political conferences. When Collier’s father died after years of mental illness and dementia, he and Bentley prayed together.
When Bentley won an upset bid for governor in 2010, part of his appeal was the straight-arrow family man (notwithstanding him legally changing his name so that Dr. was right there on the ballot). Well-off but not wealthy, he lived simply and tended to dress in khakis. He made his pledge to forgo his salary and released his tax returns even before he was elected as evidence of his transparency.
He was pro-gun, pro-business, pro-church, and anti-immigrant and anti-new taxes, all popular positions in Alabama. But at the start of his second term, he switched directions on taxes and called for a $500 million increase, stunning his Republican colleagues. He has since been viewed as increasingly out of touch.
And in that second term, Mason, an accomplished broadcast journalist, moved up from his communications staff to become his senior political adviser.
No longer paid by the state, she was president of her own company, RCM Communications, and served on a consultant basis as the governor’s senior political adviser. She was paid from campaign funds – a total of $500,000 over four years – and the source of those campaign donations was not known. This meant that no one was entirely sure who was indirectly paying her.
Collier, Morrow and other legislators noticed that the governor began to be hard to reach. He started dressing more sharply. Mason began to be seen around the legislature as the gatekeeper to the governor, holding sway over his opinions. The recorded conversations reveal the intensity of their relationship.
“You know, I worry about sometimes I love you so much, I worry about loving you so much. I do. I do,” he can be heard saying. “I feel like, all the time I’m thinking, ‘How can I contact her? How can I call her? How can I text her? How can I be in contact with her? How can we do this?’ “
“He just fell in love, bless his heart,” says Flowers, the columnist. “He was like a little schoolboy with a crush.”
This was not a secret, Collier says, to the governor’s staff, family or close observers. The governor’s wife filed for divorce shortly after he was sworn in for a second term in January 2015.
Flowers says Mason and Bentley called him to Bentley’s office in December to chew him out for a column he’d written months earlier, when the governor’s divorce was finalized, about the rumors about their relationship.
“She took control of the meeting and started browbeating me. . . . The governor was sitting there about to cry, saying he hadn’t seen his family at Christmas,” Flowers said. “She was going on for fifteen minutes. . . . I felt really sorry for him. He was trying to talk at me, but she was too busy doing it.”
The whole messy affair blew up on March 22 when Bentley fired his longtime friend from his post as the highly respected executive director of the 1,400-member Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Collier, 44, then said he had seen and investigated text messages and audio “of a sexual nature” between Bentley and Mason. The governor, through a spokeswoman, denied the allegations.
The next day, the governor’s ex-wife gave the sex-spiced recordings to Yellowhammer News, a conservative website that promptly made them available to the world.
A week after that, Mason resigned. She is still married to Jon Mason, a former TV weatherman who continues to serve the governor in a cabinet-level position as his head of faith-based initiatives. She is no longer a member of the Tuscaloosa First Baptist Church: Like the governor, she was kicked out.
Mason declined interview requests for this story. But she did email WHNT-TV after the recordings went public. She blasted critics as good ol’ boy sexists.
“There are those who are bent on hindering women’s abilities to work in politics. I have dealt repeatedly with those obstacles in my career, and continue to succeed in spite of those efforts,” Mason wrote. “It’s disappointing that a working mom can’t simply do her job and do it well without inviting unwarranted criticism.”
Before and after the uproar that has followed, the state auditor and four legislators, including several fellow Republicans, filed separate requests asking the state’s ethics and criminal justice agencies to investigate the governor’s conduct. A fifth legislator filed an impeachment motion last week. Rumors swirl in Montgomery’s political circles of a federal investigation.
“We’re all very disappointed in the governor’s activities and actions,” Ivey, the lieutenant governor, said in an interview Tuesday with the student newspaper at Auburn University, her alma mater. “They speak for themselves. It saddens me that the highest office in the land is receiving such low marks right now.”
Meanwhile, the governor’s train wreck is hardly the only one on the Alabama political tracks.
Eighteen months after he was indicted on allegations of using his office for personal gain and soliciting things of value, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a powerful leader in the state Republican Party, is finally going on trial. Bentley is expected to be a witness. Should impeachment proceedings come to pass, they would be overseen by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from office in 2003 for defying federal orders to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the state’s Judicial Building.
Voters reelected him anyway in 2013.
“If I sent this story to my fiction editor,” says Childress, the novelist, “she would send it back and tell me to make it more realistic.”
Morrow, the veteran legislator, reflects on the plight of the central character in the story, his biblical fall from grace and his persistent defiance.
He does not think this is going to end well.
“Robert is just not strong enough a person for this,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse. He’s trying to go out and do business as usual, and people are not going to let him. We’re a laughing stock.”