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The Shady Ascension of Luther Strange

Jeff Sessions’s successor rides into the Senate leaving a cloud of controversy back in Alabama.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Alabama’s sex-scandal-plagued Governor Robert Bentley stood before reporters Thursday to announce his appointment of state Attorney General Luther Strange to Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, the most obvious question was: Is this a corrupt bargain to end the state’s criminal investigation of Bentley?

“I want to make this clear because I think there’s been some misconception here,” Strange replied. “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor.”

Yet an Alabama attorney, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells The New Republic that he represents several witnesses in just such an investigation. He says that he and his clients met outside the grand jury room in Montgomery with Strange and the top lawyers in the state’s anti-corruption unit, and that they made it clear to him that Bentley was the target. Throughout the summer and early fall there was a flurry of activity around the case, the attorney says, but that it ground to a halt right after November 8, when Donald Trump’s surprise win cleared a path for Sessions’s ascent to the president’s cabinet and for Strange to claim his seat in the Senate.

The Bentley investigation is the worst-kept secret in Alabama. Days before the election, Strange wrote members of Alabama’s House Judiciary Committee asking them to suspend their impeachment investigation of Bentley until his office had completed “related work.” And in July, the Alabama Political Reporter staked out the grand jury room and snapped pictures of Bentley walking in along with Strange, his assistant state attorneys, and all the leading characters in Bentley’s scandalous soap opera, which revolves around an extramarital affair Bentley had with a top aide decades his junior.

With Strange now picking out office furniture in Washington, D.C., Bentley has the privilege of selecting a new attorney general, a development that has Alabama reporters and political junkies whipped up into a fury. Columnist Kyle Whitmire wrote that the move set “a new benchmark for Alabama corruption,” adding: “It’s so nakedly political that someone should charge them with indecent exposure.” Cartoonist J.D. Crowe drew a caricature of Strange and Bentley in the nude, with the governor reaching around to cup the new senator’s chest, a reference to an infamous clandestine recording of Bentley cooing about how much he loves to squeeze the breasts of his mistress Rebekah Mason.

Even some Republicans are saying the optics are bad. After all, Strange, a former D.C. lobbyist, has made a name for himself as a force against corruption. He came into office in 2010 as part of the GOP’s historic takeover of all branches of state government, which had been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction. Central to the campaign was a vow to fight corruption, and once in office Strange reconstituted the state’s special prosecution unit. One of its earliest targets was Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and mastermind of the Republican takeover. Strange recused himself from the case, citing his use of Hubbard’s printing company during his campaign. But after it ended with 12 felony convictions, Strange announced, “This is a good day for the rule of law in our state.” He added, “This should send a clear message that in Alabama we hold public officials accountable for their actions.”

During his two terms in office, Strange has presented himself as a tough enforcer of laws and constitutional rights, especially those that interest conservatives. As a leader in the Republican Attorney General Association (at the time of his Senate appointment he was chairman-elect) he helped spearhead legal opposition to the Obama administration’s policies on immigration, environmental protection, health care, and LGBT rights. And he’s made a big show of cracking down on violations of Alabama’s gun laws, ordering libraries and community centers across the state to remove signs prohibiting fire arms.

But he has also been accused of politicizing the justice system, using the state’s anti-gambling laws to target casinos in predominantly black counties for alleged violations that his office has allowed at Indian-owned casinos. In 2013, the state seized electronic bingo machines and cash from VictoryLand Casino in Macon County, claiming that they were actually slot machines, which are illegal in the state. A circuit court later ordered Strange’s office to return the machines, accusing him of “cherry picking” his enforcement of the law, because casinos owned by the Poarch Creek Indians are allowed to operate identical machines.

Strange has also brought suit against the tribe, but critics question the sincerity of these efforts. “His case was absolutely based on the wrong question,” says Bobby Singleton, a Democratic state senator from Greensboro. “He knew he had no standing on it.”

After the state’s raid, state Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham) wrote then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate possible violations of voting rights. “The citizens of Greene County in 2003 overwhelmingly voted in favor of state constitutional amendment 743 to authorize electronic bingo in the county,” she wrote. “The people of Greene County have been repeatedly targeted by the State in politically motivated raids in violation of their constitutional rights.”

Strange appears to have benefited from this favoritism. Last March, Robbie McGee, the Poarch Creeks’ lobbyist, told Global Gaming Business Magazine that the tribe has a “definitely more amenable relationship” with Strange. At the time, the attorney general was eyeing the race for governor in 2018, and the magazine reported “sources contend the Poarch Band has agreed to contribute millions of dollars to the effort.”

It’s unclear whether this arrangement will remain in place when Strange instead campaigns that year to retain his Senate seat. And now that he’s accepted an appointment from a man his office is investigating, his race runs the risk of being an ugly one, especially if the investigation permanently stalls, just as many Alabama political insiders and journalists assume it will.

But while Strange has clearly gotten what he wanted, things might not be so easy for the embattled governor. State lawmakers are hurriedly resuscitating their impeachment hearings, and rumors of an ongoing federal investigation have not abated. And the state’s case against Bentley isn’t dead yet. That investigation is in the hands of Matt Hart, head of the Special Prosecution Unit. A tenacious lawyer, Hart spearheaded the Mike Hubbard case, and a source close to the inquiry said, “If Bentley thinks for one minute he can stop Hart by giving Luther his dream job, he’s a bigger fool than I thought,” according to Alabama Political Reporter.

On Thursday Bentley named as acting attorney general Alice Martin, a former U.S. attorney who, with Hart as her top assistant, won numerous legendary convictions against corrupt Alabama politicians in the early 2000s. Whether Bentley ultimately appoints her or someone else, the new attorney general will be diving into dangerous waters if they quash the investigation of the governor, according to Pamela Pierson, professor at the University of Alabama’s law school. “They’re going to ruin their reputation if they do,” she says. “It could ruin their career.”

Anyone associated with a grand jury case could file a complaint with the state’s bar association, Pierson explains, which could then launch an investigation and ultimately revoke the attorney general’s license. Federal prosecutors could also conduct a conflict of interest investigation.

But then again, this is Alabama, where a politicized justice system is the norm. And the man who’ll serve as boss to all federal prosecutors is an Alabamian, too. That man, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, reportedly lobbied hard for “Big Luther” to take his place in the Senate.