This is the fourth in a series of articles about the trial of Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard. Read previous installments here: part one; part two; part three; part five.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley strode into the Lee County courthouse last Tuesday wearing a blue tie and a broad smile. The smile remained in place after Judge Jacob Walker swore him in and throughout his 20 minutes of testimony in the corruption trial of Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives. At every opportunity, Bentley put in a word or two about the good work he’s doing, peppering his answers with platitudes about jobs and the people of Alabama. He said he is promoting the state to the world because “that’s what we do.”
When defense attorney Bill Baxley asked whether an economic development deal he had worked on with Hubbard “was in the best interest of a lot of people,” the governor beamed. “Yes sir, it was,” he said. “Because it was jobs.”
Along the way, Bentley confirmed that Hubbard had used the mantle of his office in meetings at which, unbeknownst to the governor, the speaker was representing the Southeast Alabama Gas District, which was paying him $12,500 a month to essentially be its lobbyist. But Bentley didn’t let that inconvenient fact ruin a chance to advance his message. In a state where all three branches of government are caught up in scandal, it was only natural that the governor would seize on a criminal corruption trial as an opportunity for good PR.
The reporters in the back of the room would file stories that leaned heavily on the speaker-as-paid-lobbyist angle. But some also mentioned the presence in the courtroom of Spencer Collier, the state’s former top law enforcement officer, whose sudden firing blew the lid off the worst-kept secret in Montgomery—that the 73-year-old, Christian teetotaler was having an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, an aide nearly half his age. The clash between Bentley and Collier arose directly from the Hubbard case. The governor had ordered Collier to lie to prosecutors so as to avoid having to give an affidavit, and when Collier refused, Bentley canned him and accused him publicly of graft. Collier, in turn, called a press conference to tell the world that the governor was fooling around, and that there were audio recordings to prove it.
Since then, the Alabama press corps has been all over their tall, gangly governor, piecing together the details of a romance that has been best described by one Birmingham columnist as “wretch inducing.” But the intergenerational canoodling is in many ways the least interesting part of the scandal. Bentley and his paramour have spun around themselves a web of deceit that includes “dark money,” taxpayer-funded trips together, untraceable “burner” cell phones, and a shared safe deposit box. Now the state legislature is considering impeachment, and the lovers are being hunted by a handful of state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Bentley was a long shot to win the governor’s race in 2010. A dermatologist by trade, he was elected to the first of four terms in the Alabama House in 2002, representing Tuscaloosa. More or less a backbencher for those eight years, he went into the seven-candidate Republican primary in 2010 as an underdog. But the Republican establishment fought over two favorites, former state Senator Bradley Byrne and Tim James, son of former Governor Fob James. Billing himself as a kind of country doctor who could cure the state’s ills, Bentley promised to not draw a state salary until the state reached full employment. He snuck in between Byrne and James, claiming second by a mere 208 votes and earning a spot in a runoff. By then, Byrne had been badly damaged by the James campaign, and Bentley’s clean-Christian-outsider persona propelled him easily to the nomination. Then, amid the Hubbard-run campaign for Republicans to seize control of the legislature, he sailed into the governor’s mansion.
Days after his inauguration, speaking at a Sunday service at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor, he said, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” A reporter present asked if he meant to insult people of other faiths, and Mason, then his communications director, stepped in to say, “He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non‑Christians alike.”
A former beauty queen, Mason had represented Northwest Community College in the 1990 Miss Alabama Pageant. After college, she worked in broadcast news at small stations around the state. She met and married Jonathan Mason, a meteorologist at WVUA in Tuscaloosa, where Rebekah worked as anchor and news director. The two attended First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, where they became friends with Bentley and his wife, Dianne. The Masons got out of the news business to form a pair of advertising businesses, Caldwell Mason Marketing and JRM Enterprises Inc., and they helped Bentley on his campaigns. After he won the race for governor, he took them both to Montgomery with him, appointing Rebekah as his chief communications officer and Jonathan as director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Despite having no government experience, he oversees the distribution of more than 4 million federal pass-through dollars each year, for which he drew a starting salary of $77,000 and is now being paid more than $98,000. Over the same period, his business JRM Enterprises has received $274,600 from the University of Alabama system, with much of it coming mysteriously through PayPal. In her two and a half years of being directly employed by the governor’s office, Rebekah made a little over $161,000.
The “Christian brother” incident made national news, but in God-fearing Alabama it hardly constituted a scandal. Bentley’s first term went smoothly, and Bentley crushed his Democratic challenger in 2014 by almost 30 percent. But instead of celebrating on election night, the governor’s suite at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery was “total chaos, confusion, and paranoia,” a former staffer recently told the independent news site Alabama Political Reporter. Bentley stormed around the hotel room yelling at staff, ordering Collier, then Alabama’s secretary of law enforcement, to interrogate all his top aides.
At issue was a recording made surreptitiously by Bentley’s wife Dianne a few months earlier. It revealed him talking on the phone with Rebekah Mason, saying things that left little doubt that their relationship was more than professional: “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.”
As the vote tallies were coming in, Mason had told the governor that someone on staff had leaked the recording to the press. Bentley had been aware of the recordings since a few days after they were made, in early August 2014. An officer in his security detail had played for Collier a recording of Bentley talking dirty with Mason, which his wife Dianne had secretly recorded in hopes of staging an “intervention” on her husband.
A few days after learning of the tape’s existence, the governor ordered all 80 members of his staff to sign confidentiality agreements. The Bentleys separated as the campaign heated up, and Mason and the governor jetted together to all corners of the Yellowhammer State in chartered and state airplanes. When the Bentleys’ paths crossed, they fought. After one such fight, the governor hopped in his pickup and fled to the couple’s beach residence in Gulf Shores, eluding his security detail and forgetting his wallet. He asked staff to retrieve it for him, which they did—in a state helicopter. Come January 2015, the first lady had to be begged to attend the inauguration so as not to rouse suspicion among Alabamians.
Mason had stepped down in late 2013 as communications director of the governor’s office to direct Bentley’s campaign. During the 2014 election cycle, she received $426,978. After the election, she began getting paid by a nonprofit the governor had set up with several hundred thousand dollars in leftover campaign funds. Named the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, or ACEGOV, the entity was registered as a 501(c)(4), better known in the political world as a “dark money” agency because its donors can be kept secret under campaign finance laws.
The couple also tried to keep their affair secret. In May of 2015, the governor twice ducked into a Best Buy in Tuscaloosa to purchase $1,700 worth of untraceable “burner” cell phones. “[U]p until the scandal came to light, Bentley HIMSELF would by (sic) little burner phones,” an anonymous Best Buy employee informed Al.com via online message. “I witnessed it with my own 2 eyes and even sold him one.”
Mrs. Bentley, for her part, tried to keep up appearances. She tweeted on July 24, the couple’s anniversary: “God has blessed us w/ 50 years of marriage. I thank him for health, family, faith and most of all His love and grace.” But a month later, she’d had enough. On August 28, she filed for divorce.
Almost immediately, the first reports of the governor’s affair appeared, on the blog Legal Schnauzer and in a series of Facebook posts penned by Birmingham attorney Donald Watkins. Bentley vehemently denied the allegations and went after Watkins and Legal Schnauzer author Roger Shuler by having his staff investigate them through state and federal criminal databases, according to Alabama Political Reporter.
But the state’s legitimate news agencies, while acknowledging the “rumors,” held off on the story, and Bentley and Mason went on having a good time. Throughout the fall and early winter of 2015, the two traveled by state plane to Eva, Jacksonville, Decatur, Haleyville, Mobile, Fort Payne, Andalusia, and Birmingham. They took two trips to Gulf Shores, and one to Las Vegas, an Al.com investigation later revealed.
The Vegas trip was particularly special. Under the auspices of attending the Republican Governors Association Annual Conference in November, the two eluded Bentley’s security staff for private dinners together and to attend a Celine Dion concert where they went backstage and made the singer an honorary Alabamian. RGA reimbursed Bentley’s campaign trust for the trip, $11,641.35 all told, but Bentley’s campaign didn’t pay back the state until March 25 of this year—three days after the sex scandal broke.
The following February, Mason donned an elegant black gown to join the tuxedoed governor for a dinner at the White House, an event for the nation’s governors, the Montgomery Advertiser revealed. At the gala, Obama raised a glass and said, “I want to start by thanking the governors and your loved ones who are here tonight.”
When Collier told the world of Bentley’s affair, the governor continued denying it, even as his party colleagues in the state legislature began calling for his impeachment. But a few days later, an unnamed source left a flash drive in the bathroom of a gas station on a highway leading out of Birmingham for the editor of Yellowhammer News, a Republican-aligned online publication. Yellowhammer News published the transcripts of Bentley’s recorded phone conversations with Mason in full, and soon the governor was standing before a phalanx of reporters saying, “I’ve asked God to forgive me because that’s the most important thing. I want back in His fellowship. And so I asked God to forgive me.
“But I asked other people to again forgive me and I’ve already done that and I have truly asked the people of this state—they’re the folks who love me and are the best people in the world—I have asked them to forgive me.”
He’d chosen as the site for this announcement a women’s prison in the north of the state, because he was then pushing for an $800 million bond issue for new prisons at unnamed locations around Alabama, to be designed and built by unnamed, no-bid contractors. The irony was delicious for all those following the scandal, because even then the authorities were beginning to move in on him.
Since the scandal broke, rumors have swirled about investigations by the state Attorney General’s office and Ethics Commission, the FBI and U.S. Attorney General, even the Post Office and IRS. On May 25, during the first week of the Hubbard Trial, Al.com columnist John Archibald revealed the first hard evidence: a letter from the Justice Department thanking a witness for providing information for its investigation. And early last week, Alabama Political Reporter reported that Mason is pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination in the civil lawsuit Collier has brought against his former employer because, as she stated in a filing, she is the “subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.” And in hundreds of stories, the Alabama press corps has unleashed a torrent of startling revelations—from instances of falsified Ethics Commission filings to likely violations of campaign finance laws to a safe deposit box in Montgomery that the couple shares.
Despite it all, Governor Bentley has stepped forward with the boldest policy initiative of his career: “Great State 2019,” a plan that “addresses access to health care in our most underserved rural areas, helping small towns get access to technology, and solving our state’s dangerously overcrowded prison dilemma.” Bentley unveiled it in an op-ed published at Al.com on the Sunday before Memorial Day, under the headline, “Governor Bentley wants to hear from you.” In it, he presents himself as a sinner who’s finally and truly found Jesus, declaring to the good people of Alabama:
“As human beings we are called on by Our Creator to come alongside and help or minister to the poor, the orphaned and the forgotten. That’s not Republican or Democrat idealology (sic). It’s a command repeated multiple times in the Bible. God calls it Justice. Justice is about restoring broken relationships among communities, individuals and institutions. It’s about setting things right.”