|Robert Bentley and Rebekah Caldwell Mason|
The answer to all four questions appears to be yes, and if that holds up, 2016 could find Montgomery awash in even more corruption than usual.
The Bentley/Mason affair, which ended the governor's 50-year marriage to First Lady Dianne Bentley, took on new dimensions recently when State Auditor Jim Zeigler alleged the governor is renovating the state's dilapidated Gulf Coast mansion only because he lost ownership of two personal beach homes in the divorce. From a report at al.com:
Zeigler, who has publicly criticized the governor on numerous policy issues this year, claims the governor is taking advantage of state money to build a personal home after he lost ownership of his personal beach homes in his September divorce.Bentley countered by saying funds from the BP oil-spill settlement will be used to cover costs of the renovation, that no taxpayer funds will be used. But didn't the BP funds go into state coffers? Doesn't that mean state dollars are, in fact, being used to renovate the gulf mansion? Couldn't a reasonable citizen say, "This money should be used for a more important purpose"? And isn't the timing of the renovation, coming so soon after Bentley's divorce settlement, more than a little curious?
"The governor now has a personal need for a Gulf place, so only now is he restoring the governor's mansion at the gulf," Zeigler wrote in a statement.
The two-story, 7,500-square-foot gubernatorial mansion in Baldwin County is receiving a face lift – estimated at $1.5 million to $1.8 million – after sitting boarded up since Hurricane Danny in 1997.
Such questions are starting to reach beyond the borders of Alabama. James DeVinnie wrote a scorching article at occupydemocrats.com, titled "Alabama Governor Robbed Citizens Of Millions In Oil Spill Money To Rebuild Beachfront Mansion." Ouch, that headline stings--and the story itself does not let up. Writes DeVinnie:
Showing a reckless disregard for the needs of his state’s people in favor of corporate bosses and his own fancy, Alabama’s Republican governor Robert Bentley is renovating an abandoned 7,500 square-foot governor’s mansion with money left over from 2010 BP oil spill settlement. An estimated $1.5 to $1.8 million of grants from the settlement in the Deepwater Horizon spill will be used to cover the costs of refurbishment. Such a blatant pillaging of funds intended to serve the public good for extravagant private use is downright shameful, especially given that the local communities, industry, and environment along Alabama’s Gulf Coast continue to suffer the effects of the enormous oil spill.
The mansion in question, located on the beachfront in Gulf Shores, AL, was built in the era of famed racist governor George Wallace, and served as a secondary governor’s residence until it was damaged by Hurricane Danny in 1997 and subsequently abandoned. Bentley has claimed that his decision to renovate the property has nothing to do with the fact that he recently lost two nearby beachfront properties in a messy divorce. That divorce was the result of widely credible rumors of an affair between Bentley – who hypocritically couches his opposition to abortion and gay marriage as a belief in “family values” – and one of his staffers.
We must quibble with DeVinnie's characterization of the divorce as "the result of widely credible rumors of an affair." In fact, we broke the story of an affair, based on information from multiple knowledgeable sources--and other state news outlets picked up on it. In other words, the story grew from journalism, not rumors.
Other than that, DeVinnie appropriately nails Bentley for what might be called "gross gubernatorial negligence":
The fact that almost two million dollars of funds meant to serve the people of Alabama affected by corporate negligence are instead going to fund more trickle-down extravagance for the elite has justifiably aroused the ire of many Alabamians, especially as it comes on the heels of the state’s dubious decision in 2013 to use BP settlement money meant for environmental cleanup to build an $85 million hotel and conference center on a state beach property.
For example, in October, the state shut down 30 DMV offices, all in rural majority-black areas, and after an enormous backlash agreed to keep them open only one day per year. The NAACP is suing the state for the closures – which were rationalized by Bentley as a response to the budget crisis – arguing that they serve to suppress the votes of blacks by limiting access to state-issued voter ID cards that are necessary to vote in the state following last year’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In another move this year, some 15 Alabama state parks are facing closure due to the budget crisis, and lawmakers are considering serious cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and other social services to shore up Montgomery’s finances.
As for Mike Hubbard, he is facing a 23-count indictment alleging he used his public office for private gain. If Zeigler's allegations are on target, it appears Bentley used public funds for private gain--or at least for personal enjoyment. Is the governor, once seen as a distinguished man of medicine, much different from the money grubbing Hubbard? It doesn't look like it.
Here is how we reported on Shattuck and others behind the shadowy ACEGOV:
Shattuck oversees a staff of 21 lawyers who serve the three UA campuses--in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville. Joining him as board members for ACEGOV are R.B. Walker, assistant to the executive vice president at Alabama Power, and Marquita Davis, a former state finance director under Bentley and current executive director of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity.
Shattuck helps complete a powerful trifecta--University of Alabama, Alabama Power, Poarch Creeks--that, our sources say, helped funnel money to Rebekah Caldwell Mason. How much did ACEGOV pay Mason, and what services did she perform? Was she paid mainly to stay quiet about her affair with Governor Bentley?
Could the answers to those questions help lead to criminal charges against Mason, Bentley, and perhaps others?
Watkins apparently is thinking along the same lines, and he used the term "slush fund" to help describe ACEGOV:
For over a year, the governor seemed oblivious to the hurt and pain he had caused to Mrs. Bentley and his children by his love affair with Rebekah. Since he was re-elected last year, Bentley’s primary concern has been figuring out how best to use the financial resources of the state, along with leftover campaign funds and the financial resources of friendly political groups, to support his romantic lifestyle with Rebekah.
In February, Governor Bentley established the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation. Bentley’s former legal advisor Cooper Shattuck formed the Council at Bentley’s request. The stated purpose of the organization is to “support Governor Bentley in his efforts to solve real problems and to make Alabama greater, stronger and more excellent for all the hardworking men and women who call this great state our home.” In reality, the Council is a slush fund that was set up to (a) fund Bentley’s love affair with Rebekah while concealing payments to her from the view of public oversight and accountability, and (b) stash money for life with Rebekah after the governor’s divorce from Mrs. Bentley.
Bentley funded the Council with excess campaign funds left over from his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. The Council has also received a $25,000 contribution this year from AEA and $20,000 from the Alabama Hospital Association.
If federal investigators wind up on Bentley's trail, they will have plenty of rocks to look under. The governor's actions with the Gulf Coast mansion might provide just one more slimy rock.