|Rebekah Caldwell Mason|
The commission's inexplicable finding suggests the Bentley/Mason sex scandal is far worse than the public knows, and it likely involves far more powerful individuals than the public realizes. The finding also indicates there is hard evidence of criminal actions by Bentley, Mason, and others, but the commission doesn't have the stomach to look into it. Specifically, the commission appears to be participating in a cover-up to protect a Republican Party brand that has been riddled by corruption in the past couple of years.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed an ethics complaint against Mason on March 25, 2016, and received notice of the "no probable cause" finding in a letter dated Wednesday (April 12, 2017) from Thomas Allbritton, executive director of the ethics commission. One wonders how Allbritton wrote that letter with a straight face.
Here's how al.com described Zeigler's complaint in an article published roughly one year ago:
Zeigler said he filed a report with the state Ethics Commission to determine "whether Gov. Bentley and Mason are using state property in furtherance of their personal relationship, and if they have used their position to interfere with an attorney general's investigation."
In his report to State Ethics Commission Executive Director Thomas Albritton, Zeigler cited the audiotape in saying that it was "apparent that Mrs. Mason and Gov. Bentley have been using state property and resources in furtherance of their personal relationship." He was referring to the governor mentioning that "Wanda's desk" would have to be moved down the hall.
Zeigler also alleged that Mason was violating the law because she has never registered as a lobbyist -- which he claims should have been done if she's being paid by a third party and not the state. If she was considered a state official, Zeigler contended, then Mason would be violating the law by receiving private funds.
As was recently reported at the Montgomery Advertiser, "Under state law, the Alabama Ethics Commission acts as a grand jury when a public official faces accusations of breaking the state's ethics law. The commission cannot press charges but can find probable cause and refer cases to the Alabama attorney general or a district attorney -- usually the one in Montgomery County -- for prosecution. Testimony and deliberations take place in private, but votes are public."
An old joke in legal circles is that a "grand jury could indict a ham sandwich." In other words, the bar for probable cause is extremely low, as Bentley attorney William Athanas stated after the ethics commission found probable cause on four counts against his client:
"It’s a finding of probable cause, which is one of the lowest legal standards we apply in these cases," he said. "We certainly disagree there was evidence to support a probable cause finding. We definitely disagree there was enough evidence to support a finding beyond a cause of reasonable doubt."
The statement about reasonable doubt is an effort to muddy the waters. That standard applies to juries in criminal trials, but it has no connection to the ethics commission, which must find only probable cause. There is enough probable cause against Mason to sink a battleship in Mobile Bay. That the commission could not find probable cause suggests it wasn't trying very hard.
A few issues to consider:
* Our second report on the Bentley/Mason scandal showed the governor's campaign had spent more than $400,000 with a company owned by Mason, his mistress. Bentley hired Mason's husband, Jon, to a state position that had paid him more than $390,000. That doesn't constitute probable cause of an ethics or campaign-finance violation? We're to believe Rebekah Mason had no knowledge of how her husband landed his state job or took no actions to ensure that he filled the job? Don't make me laugh.
* In our third report on the scandal, we showed the Masons had received almost $1 million in government-related payments since the beginning of the Bentley administration in 2011. During a chunk of this time, Rebekah Mason was conducting an extramarital affair with Bentley -- and taking actions to keep it under wraps, according to published reports. No probable cause of unethical activity? Don't make me laugh.
* According to multiple published reports, Bentley allowed Mason to serve as the state's "de facto" governor. And a report at USA Today showed that former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) chief Spencer Collier alleged both Bentley and Mason used state time and resources to pursue the affair. According to former spokesperson Jennifer Ardis, Mason's clout caused regular disruption of operations in the governor's office. "Nothing could be done in the office without Mason's sign-off," Ardis said. No probable cause? Don't make me laugh.
* A House Judiciary Report showed that Bentley, Mason, and others failed to turn over requested documents -- emails, texts, phone and financial records -- to investigators. They also failed to appear for interviews under oath. Did the Alabama Ethics Commission, deliberating in private, even seek such information? We've seen no evidence that it did. Again, no probable cause? Don't make me laugh.
* The Montgomery Advertiser yesterday reported as follows:
In a letter to State Auditor Jim Zeigler dated Wednesday, Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton said the Ethics Commission did not find probable cause that Mason violated the Alabama Ethics Act.
Albritton’s letter did not specify the reasons why. It said the Ethics Commission received the results of the investigation April 5, the same day commissioners heard evidence against Bentley.
Did the commission conduct any independent investigation of Mason? It doesn't sound like it. Was the complaint against her completely intertwined with the Bentley case? The answer appears to be yes.
How sleazy is all this? It suggests the ethics commission itself needs to be investigated. Attorney Donald Watkins summed it up well at his Facebook page:
In the same April 5, 2017, Ethics Commission meeting that resulted in a referral of Bentley’s case to state prosecutors on four felony ethics violations, the Commission also dismissed the case against Rebekah Mason. According to investigators, they could not find any evidence that Mason had misused state property.
They did not look hard enough, if they looked at all. Rebekah Mason operated her public relations firm, RCM Communications, Inc., while working full-time as Bentley’s communications director. Rebekah also conducted RCM’s business from the governor’s office and used state resources to further her private business interests.
Also, Bentley made sure that Rebekah had unfettered access to state trooper transportation, the Governor’s mansion (at all times of the night), the state airplane, the Winton Blount mansion in Montgomery (which was donated to the state), and to any other state resource she needed to make herself fully available to the Governor for his personal and sexual pleasure. After all, Rebekah, in Bentley’s mind, was the real First Lady of Alabama.
Watkins goes on to use the "F word" to describe the ethics commission's actions:
The Commission's disposition of Rebekah’s case has the feel and smell of a political “fix”. Through back channels, Bentley apparently signaled that he would resign as governor if no charges were brought against Rebekah and if he could dispose of his felony violations by pleading guilty to two no-jail time misdemeanors. The state caved in and agreed. Bentley’s exit from the governorship played out Monday just as the governor had demanded.
This is why Robert Bentley was smiling in his mugshot. He hoodwinked them all. The only people who were not aware of: (a) the Ethics Commission’s accommodation “fix” of Rebekah’s case, (b) the prosecutor’s “sweetheart” plea deal with the governor, and (c) the “sellout” of the people’s right to the fair administration of justice, were the citizens of Alabama who are thirsty for tough law enforcement in public corruption cases. Once again, they got shafted in this debacle. Nobody gave a damn about their rights as crime victims.
As a practical matter, how does a commission find four felony counts against Bentley and none against Mason, his clear accomplice? Isn't that like indicting Clyde and letting Bonnie off the hook completely? Isn't that a sign of a commission that is wildly compromised, one the public should not trust?