Alabama governor tries to focus on agenda, not scandal

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley toured a women’s prison Thursday and tried to focus on his political agenda, despite being dogged by questions about his relationship with a former aide.

Pressure has mounted around the governor ever since he acknowledged last week that he made inappropriate sexual remarks to his former aide, who stepped down on Wednesday. Bentley has denied having an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason and for much of the week he kept up his schedule of public appearances while becoming a political punching bag for a few fellow Republicans who have called for his resignation or impeachment.

Asked about that Thursday, Bentley said: “I just want the people of Alabama to know there is nothing there, nothing illegal there, there is nothing that has been done that would affect the people of Alabama for my job.”

He made the remarks after touring the overcrowded Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. The governor is seeking to build legislative support for an $800 million prison construction project that he believes is critical to solving the state’s overcrowding problem, which has been blamed for two violent uprisings in the past few weeks.

The prison, built in the 1942, houses 950 female inmates in a facility originally built for 550. The number of media attending the event was far more than any similar previous engagement, suggesting that Bentley would remain under fire.

“These are major problems in the state of Alabama,” Bentley said, shifting the focus away from the scandal. “I was elected by the people of this state to help solve problems and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

His aide’s resignation capped an explosive week in state politics that rocked the administration of the conservative Republican governor. Mason said she would no longer serve as Bentley’s senior political adviser and would no longer be paid by his campaign fund or work for a nonprofit formed to promote his agenda.

As Bentley’s confidante, sounding board and adviser, Mason has been there for the biggest moments of his political career, from his improbable 2010 election to the development of his major policy initiatives. More recently, she has been at the center of the lowest moment of his political career.

Last week, Mason was thrust into the spotlight when former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier — a day after being fired by Bentley — accused the 73-year-old governor of having an inappropriate relationship with Mason. Collier also accused the governor of urging him to give false information about the status of a prosecutorial misconduct investigation involving the case against the speaker of the house.

Bentley has denied the accusations, but the scandal has engulfed the mild-mannered dermatologist and former Baptist deacon, whose political ascendency was based partly on his morally upright, honest reputation.

Bill Stewart, the former chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said the full political impact might depend on how long the public’s attention is focused on Bentley.

“He’s made some grave mistakes and he’s paying the political penalty,” Stewart said.

Dianne Bentley, the governor’s ex-wife, filed for divorce in 2015 saying their 50-year marriage had suffered an irreparable breakdown.

Recordings obtained by The Associated Press purportedly show the governor — before his divorce — professing love to someone named Rebecca or Rebekah and telling her how much he enjoyed kissing and touching her.

The recordings were provided by a former administration member who did so on condition of anonymity to avoid angering politically powerful former associates.

In a phone call, Bentley says his family is vacationing at the beach and repeatedly assures the person on the other end how much he loves them: “I love you so much, I worry about loving you so much.”

While the governor is clearly heard, the person on the other end is not.

Later, he talks about getting physical.

“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 just pull you in really close. I love that, too.”

Although most high-ranking Republicans have taken a measured reaction to Bentley’s admission, some have called for his resignation. Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, said Wednesday that he plans to introduce an impeachment resolution when the Alabama Legislature returns from spring break next week.

Henry and Bentley are both Republicans who have frequently clashed over the past two years, including over the governor’s proposal last year to raise taxes.

However, Henry acknowledged the resolution faces an uphill climb. A majority of House members would have to vote to begin proceedings.

Other legislators said the call was premature, in part because an ethics probe has only just started.

“You investigate and then take action. You don’t take action and then investigate,” Republican Rep. Jack Williams said.