Former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley asked multiple subordinates about launching a criminal investigation of me in retaliation for my reporting on his extramarital affair with aide Rebekah Caldwell Mason, according to a deposition in a recently settled lawsuit.
I broke the story here at Legal Schnauzer of the Bentley-Mason affair, which ended the governor's 50-year marriage and led to his political downfall -- with him resigning in April 2017 after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges and agreeing to never again hold public office. Bentley apparently knew my reporting, which started almost seven months before the mainstream media devoted serious attention to the matter, was a threat to his hold on political power because he sought to punish me for it -- even though subordinates told him on multiple occasions there were no lawful grounds to use state and federal databases to seek "dirt" on me.
Subordinates said the same thing about Bentley's efforts to target Birmingham attorney and Facebook blogger Donald Watkins with a similar dirt-gathering operation because of his reporting on the Bentley-Mason scandal.
The revelations come from a deposition former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) chief Spencer Collier gave in his wrongful termination-defamation lawsuit against Bentley, Mason, and their associates.
Collier announced last Wednesday that the lawsuit had settled, even though Alabama taxpayers were paying for Team Bentley's legal defense, so it's hard to see what incentive they had to settle. The next day, Collier's estranged wife sought a protection order against him. And two days later, in an even more curious event, police in Daphne, AL, arrested Collier on charges of filing a false report -- related to his son's use of a credit card without his father's permission. The arrest came even though no information published in the press indicates Collier "knowingly" filed a false report -- the mother apparently gave the son permission to use the card, without Collier's knowledge -- and the "knowing" element is central to proving a culpable state of mind that is key to the offense.
Ironically, the Collier deposition includes statements that, while working for Bentley, he learned of the governor's fondness for making abusive use of state and law-enforcement resources to gather dirt on perceived enemies. From a portion of the deposition, which is embedded at the end of this post: (The questioning apparently is from John Neiman Jr., Bentley's attorney from the Birmingham firm Maynard Cooper and Gale; Collier is represented by Montgomery attorney Kenneth Mendelsohn.)
A: Bentley had, and continues to have, a pattern and practice of using ALEA equipment, facilities, and labor for his own personal reasons, including using and attempting to use ALEA law enforcement officers to try to dig up dirt on people that Bentley disliked or became upset with.
Q: What equipment are you referring to?
A: Which instance? In general?
Q: In general, yes.
A: Governor Bentley on several occasions requested either myself or special agents -- other special agents either in executive or protective services, dignitary protection, to access law enforcement-sensitive databases to obtain information on individuals that he viewed were political enemies of his.
Q: Can you provide me some examples of instances in you contend that happened?
A: Yes. Governor Bentley requested myself and another special agent to try and gather information on Donald Watkins. He also requested it on a blogger out of Shelby County. I don't know the gentleman -- recall the gentleman's name, he ran a blog.
That last sentence is a reference to yours truly. What made Bentley think he could get away with this kind of thuggishness? It apparently appealed to his inner bully, and Collier explains why:
A: Specifically, Governor Bentley had discovered an investigation that ALEA had conducted in the Wiregrass area, where a blogger was making accusations of racial bigotry towards a current ALEA employee, former sheriff. We pretty quickly were able to show that there was no merit to the investigation. The governor was pleased with the investigation and the methods we used to disprove it. He specifically -- initially contacted Jon Barganier to contact me and ask for -- if we could do a similar investigation aimed at a blogger out of Shelby County to disprove what the blogger was saying the governor.
Again, my name has not been mentioned in the deposition (yet), but I was the first person Bentley sought to target. Here is more from the deposition:
A: Jon [Barganier] brought it to my attention by phone. I told Jon it was probably not a proper conversation between he and I, that I needed to have the conversation with the governor. I went in later to meet with the governor and again, he praised the investigation that we had done and what our capabilities were, and he wanted to know if we could use similar capabilities to discredit a blogger in Shelby County that was saying negative things about him. I explained to the governor that that was law enforcement sensitive, that it would require criminal justice purpose to utilize that and told him it wouldn't be proper.
On another occasion, the governor asked us to use law enforcement sensitive information to discredit Donald Watkins. I don't know Donald Watkins, I didn't know him. I don't necessarily know what it was about, but obviously Mr. Watkins had said some negative things about the governor, and the governor wanted us to discredit him in general. I again explained to the governor that NCIC, ACJIS, all of that was law enforcement sensitive, and we had to have criminal justice purpose to utilize it.
What happened to Gov. Bentley's requests to investigate Donald Watkins and me?The deposition provides insight, but it does not fully answer that question.
(To be continued)