- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - State Auditor Jim Zeigler on Friday said he was asking the state ethics commission to review how Gov. Robert Bentley’s senior political adviser - whom Bentley admitted making inappropriate remarks to - is paid.

Bentley senior political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason is not on state payroll although she plays a key adviser role in Bentley’s administration.

“This is not about his personal peccadillos; it is about the improper use of state funds and the right of the people to know who is paying the advisers to our public officials,” Zeigler said in a statement.

Mason on Friday released a summary of payments after questions about how she is paid. Mason said her company was paid a total of $91,000 last year - mostly through campaign funds- for her work for Bentley and a nonprofit organization formed to advance his agenda.

Mason, who previously worked for Bentley’s campaign for governor and as his communications director in the governor’s office, was named his senior political adviser on Jan. 1, 2015.

Mason says Bentley’s campaign paid her company, RCM Communications, $76,500 in 2015 for consulting and travel reimbursement. She said the Alabama Council for Government Excellence, a nonprofit formed to promote Bentley’s agenda, also paid her company $15,000 for consulting work. However, she said, that was separate to her work as the governor’s direct adviser.

As a nonprofit, the group does not have to report donors. The state auditor called the group a “dark money” organization.

“I have disclosed every dime RCM Communications Inc. has received, including fees paid to the company by a non-profit which is not even required to disclose that information. If there’s a perception this is ‘dark money’ I believe my disclosure flips the light switch on,” Mason said in a statement.

Mason served as Bentley’s communications adviser in the governor’s office in 2012 and 2013 before shifting to work on his re-election campaign in July 2013. She said that between July 2013 and November 2014, her company had a gross income of $273,278 from Bentley’s campaign for work on the re-election.

Former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier - a day after Bentley fired him- accused the governor of having an inappropriate relationship with Mason. Collier disclosed the contents of a recorded conversation in which Bentley made sexually charged remarks to a woman, although the person on the other end of the conversation could not be heard.

Zeigler asked the commission to investigate whether any state resources were improperly used to further an improper relationship and other allegations made by Collier.

Bentley said he never had a physical relationship with Mason but admitted making remarks that caused him to apologize to his family and to Mason and her family.

The governor in a statement responding to Zeigler’s accusation said he has, “always complied with the ethics laws of the state.”

“In fact, I voluntarily release my tax returns to the public every year in a spirit of openness and transparency. I have always and will continue to cooperate with the Alabama Ethics Commission,” Bentley said.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said Friday that he could not comment on any matter that may be pending before the commission.

The Ethics Commission, in an opinion earlier this year, took a dim view of outside pay for those who function as public officials.

“The Ethics Commission presumes that an employee who is paid from a source other than public money, but who performs all the functions of a public sector employee cannot serve under that arrangement without violating the fundamental principles underlying the Ethics Act,” a Feb. 3 opinion from the commission stated.

The commission did not forbid the arrangements but said going forward that it would only approve them on a case-by-case basis.

The governor’s office has previously said that because Mason’s role was focused on political strategy and advice that she should not be paid with state funds. Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said previously that the arrangement was not unique and that the governor used campaign funds to pay previous political advisers in his office.

Bentley’s former chief of staff, Seth Hammett, remained on the payroll of his employer, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, during his 17 months working for the governor. The governor’s office called the arrangement an “executive loan.

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