- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - As a legislative committee begins an impeachment probe, lawyers for Gov. Robert Bentley asked for the right to cross-examine witnesses and argued any actions in Bentley’s first term cannot legally be considered grounds for removal.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold its first meeting Wednesday as it investigates if there are grounds to impeach the governor. The purpose of the first meeting is largely organizational as committee members discuss proposed rules, governing how they will proceed in the coming months.

David Byrne, the legal adviser in the governor’s office, and Joe Espy, Bentley’s private attorney, sent letters to the committee chairman and the head of the Legislative Fiscal Office seeking input on the process. The attorneys argued that the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that acts of a previous term cannot be considered grounds for impeachment since re-election serves as a “condonation” of a politician’s previous term.

“Therefore, acts or events occurring during Governor Bentley’s first term in office should not be properly considered as evidence of impeachment for the term beginning January 2015,” Byrne and Espy wrote.

The impeachment push was the latest complication for Bentley in the wake of a sex-tinged scandal involving a former aide. Spencer Collier, the former state law enforcement secretary fired by Bentley, in March accused his former boss of having an affair with a staffer and of interfering with law enforcement business. Bentley acknowledged making inappropriate remarks to his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, but denied the other accusations.

Twenty-three House members in April signed impeachment articles accusing Bentley of willful neglect of duty and corruption in office. The number exceeded a 21-signature threshold needed to trigger a committee investigation, according to House rules.

The impeachment articles did not lay out specific accusations against Bentley. Rep. Ed Henry, the lawmaker who spearheaded the impeachment drive, said he believed Bentley used state resources to “cover up or enhance” the alleged affair.

The governor’s lawyers asked for the ability to cross-examine any witnesses who testify to the committee and that the standard of proof should be “beyond a reasonable doubt” __ the same as at a criminal trial.

“We gratefully appreciate the opportunity to communicate with you regarding the draft rules,” the attorneys wrote.

The governor’s attorneys suggested that the governor be given more specifics, including “what laws has the governor failed to faithfully execute” and what “state property has the governor misused.”

The lawyers, in another letter, suggested the three committee members who signed the impeachment articles should recuse themselves from the probe because they are not impartial and should not serve as both accuser and adjudicator in a case.

Republican Rep. Mike Ball, a committee member who also signed the impeachment articles, said it was “foolish” to suggest they couldn’t serve on the investigating governor. Ball, R-Madison, said he signed the articles because he thought the accusations should be investigated, not because he had made a conclusion.

“That doesn’t make sense to me. I have an open mind,” Ball said. “I’ll let the evidence drive me.”

The letter from the governor’s attorneys signaled that the office was willingly cooperating with the probe, but also taking the matter seriously. Bentley had previously dismissed the probe as “political grandstanding.”

While the committee holds its first meeting Wednesday, any resolution of the matter is likely far away.

The committee will make a recommendation to the full House. It would require a vote of 53 lawmakers in the 105-member House to impeach Bentley. However, lawmakers must first get past a procedural hurdle that requires 63 lawmakers to agree to bring impeachment up for a vote. If House members voted to impeach Bentley, a trial would then be held in the Alabama Senate to determine if there are grounds to oust Bentley from office.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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