- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday set up an impeachment process that likely halts - or at least slows down - an effort to oust Gov. Robert Bentley.

The House of Representatives voted 79-14 Tuesday for a rule change to have the House Judiciary Committee investigate calls for impeachment. However, it would require 21 legislators to first sign impeachment articles. Eleven legislators filed impeachment articles against Bentley in the wake of a scandal and affair allegations involving a former top aide.

Rep. Mac McCutcheon, who proposed the 21-signature threshold, said that it would give articles “credibility.” Other supporting lawmakers agreed it shouldn’t be easy to initiate impeachment proceedings.

“We don’t need anger. We don’t need emotion. We need facts,” said McCutcheon, R-Capshaw.

The vote set up two procedural speed bumps in the vague impeachment process laid out in the 1901 Alabama Constitution. Rep. Ed Henry, who filed the impeachment articles against Bentley, said he believed there was an “orchestrated” effort to put his previously filed impeachment articles in limbo.

“I have to believe the only intention was to stall and prolong and eventually prevent the impeachment of Governor Robert Bentley,” Henry said.

McCutcheon said legal counsel would have to determine the status of the impeachment articles already filed by Henry and 10 other lawmakers. Henry said he will try to get 21 signatures on new articles, but said it would be tough with four days remaining in the session. He said lawmakers would also fear retribution by the governor’s office.

Henry filed impeachment articles against Bentley after the former state law enforcement secretary accused Bentley of having an affair with a staffer and of interfering with law enforcement business.

Bentley last month acknowledged making inappropriate remarks to his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, but denied the other accusations. Recordings obtained by The Associated Press purportedly show the governor - before his 2015 divorce - professing love to someone and telling her how much he enjoyed kissing her and touching her breasts, and referencing a need to start locking his office door.

Under the approved process, the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation - whether to impeach or not - would be sent to the full House of Representatives. Lawmakers on Tuesday added another procedural hurdle that would require 63 lawmakers in the 105-member House to bring the impeachment articles for a vote. A simple majority vote would be required to impeach, but lawmakers would first have to clear the 63-vote requirement. If House members vote to impeach, a trial would be held in the Alabama Senate.

The debate highlighted divisions in the Alabama House of Representatives.

“Ain’t no law against having a girlfriend,” said Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery. “If you misuse state funds and misuse state property that becomes another issue.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said lawmakers should set up a deliberative and cautious process for any impeachment.

“We are talking about removing someone from office presumptively elected by a large popular vote. It should be serious. It should be deliberative. It should create due process for everyone involved,” England said.

Lawmakers voted down a proposed amendment that would exempt Henry’s impeachment call from the 21-vote requirement.

Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis had no comment Tuesday evening on the vote. Bentley has previously dismissed the impeachment push as “political grandstanding.”

It came as a House member, in a nod to the scandal in the governor’s office, pushed to prohibit gubernatorial advisers from being paid by outside sources as Mason was. Rep. Jim Patterson introduced the legislation that would require executive branch advisers, with decision-making responsibilities, to be paid by state funds.

Mason played a key role in Bentley’s administration, but wasn’t on the state payroll after his 2014 re-election. The governor’s office said she was paid by campaign funds because her role involved politics.

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