— -- “If we’re going to do what we did the other day we’re going to have to start locking the door.”
That’s just a snippet of a recording, obtained by AL.com, of 74-year-old former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley whispering sweet nothings to a woman who is not his wife.
“You know what, when, when I stand behind you, and I, and I, and I put my arms around you and I put my hands on your breasts and I put my hands and [unintelligible] and just, and pull you in real close,” the recording continues.
Bentley resigned Monday after facing possible impeachment over allegations that he used state resources to carry out and then conceal an extramarital affair with a former top aide: Rebekah Mason, one of his campaign consultants who is also married.
While their alleged affair wasn’t a crime, the alleged cover-up was.
Police say Bentley illegally used campaign resources to both hide the affair and pay Mason. In a plea deal, Bentley pleaded guilty Monday to two charges – failing to file a major campaign contribution report and knowingly converting campaign contributions for personal use.
“We know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler. “Robert Bentley could not handle the power.”
Bentley was a dermatologist and church deacon before he ran for governor seven years ago on a platform of preaching the virtues of family values, with Dianne Bentley, his wife of nearly 50 years, by his side.
New to politics, Robert Bentley wanted someone with media experience on his gubernatorial campaign and hired Mason, a former local TV reporter nearly 30 years his junior, who also attended the same church as the Bentleys.
Once Bentley won the election, it seemed Mason’s influence on him grew. Jason Zengerle, a political correspondent for GQ magazine who wrote a lengthy investigative piece about Bentley’s alleged affair, said the governor began dressing better and the first person to notice was his wife, Dianne. The grandfather who once had to be reminded to change from his gardening pants, according to Zengerle, started wearing orange socks and “snazzier ties.”
“[She] noticed not only the changes in her husband’s wardrobe but also the changes in his demeanor,” Zengerle said.
Dianne Bentley wasn’t alone. Zengerle said he interviewed others who said the governor started acting strangely.
“They would walk into a room where the governor and Rebekah Mason were together and both the governor and Mason would be startled as if they were doing something they didn’t want other people to see,” he said.
In the spring of 2014, Bentley sent a text message meant for Mason to his wife Dianne that said, “I love you, Rebekah.” Dianne Bentley then started collecting evidence on her own. “Dianne was keeping track of all this and she had a diary or a notebook that she was keeping track of this in,” Zengerle said. “She would write everyday and talked about her husband’s declining affections.”
She got a hold of text messages between the two, where Robert Bentley had written things like, “I’m yours forever” and “I love you so much.” She took it a step farther when she set her cellphone to record and left it near her husband while he called Mason.
“She had one of her aides download the iPhone recording to a laptop and then burn them to a CD,” Zengerle said. “Those CDs, who actually had them, where they were, became a bit of an obsession for Gov. Bentley once he discovered that he had been recorded.”
Investigators say Bentley went too far trying to keep the situation private, accusing him of even using his police detail to go track down the recordings.
“Gov. Bentley has attempted to put together a little Montgomery mafia, intimidating people, harassing people, threatening people, and if you’re going to do that, you best be good at it,” Zeigler said. “And he’s not, it’s very juvenile.”
All of this might have never come out if it weren’t for Alabama’s former chief law enforcement officer Spencer Collier, who went public with allegations against the governor last year. Collier claimed he was fired for refusing to cover up Bentley’s alleged affair.
“I explained to Gov. Bentley it would be a crime if he has used state resources to facilitate a relationship or if he used campaign funds to facilitate the relationship,” Collier told reporters at a news conference.
The governor admitted to “saying inappropriate things” but denied that he and Mason ever got physical, telling reporters at a news conference in March 2016, “I want everyone to know that I have never had a physical affair with Mrs. Mason ... I have apologized to her, to my family and to the state of Alabama.” Mason resigned that same month.
Once the allegations started coming, the Alabama state auditor and the state corrections officer began filing complaints against Bentley to the state’s ethics commission.
“The way you keep politicians straight is you watch them,” said Alabama state corrections officer Stacy George. “I just found some obvious that things were wrong. [For] 120 days, you cannot raise money until after the election is over and I looked and he had done that twice. This was unbelievable.”
Their complaints led to an investigation that produced a 131-page report released Friday by the Alabama state House Judicial Committee. It accused Bentley of an extensive abuse of power. Lawmakers in his own party called for his impeachment. Earlier on Monday, the day that Bentley was forced to resign, lawmakers held the first in a series of impeachment hearings.
“Everybody wants to make a joke out of it, but for us, we’re living it and it’s just an absolute embarrassment,” said Republican state Rep. Ed Henry. He says that, when he started going after the governor on these issues, road projects in his district were suddenly cancelled. “My district has suffered the last two years because of my battle with Gov. Bentley,” he said.
As part of the deal he struck with prosecutors, Bentley, among other requirements, has to pay back some of the campaign funds he spent on Mason. He agreed to never run for office again and serve one year probation. While he has his freedom, it seems Bentley has lost everything else.
“He’s lost his wife … he’s lost his children, they no longer talk to him and now he’s lost his office,” Zengerle said.