- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A state ethics panel on Wednesday found probable cause that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley broke state ethics and campaign finance law in a sex-tinged scandal that has engulfed him for more than a year.

The Alabama Ethics Commission, after an all-day meeting, voted to refer the matter to the district attorney’s office for possible prosecution. The commission found probable cause that Bentley misused state resources and campaign funds, improperly accepted a campaign donation and loaned himself campaign money when he was not a candidate.

The decision was a legal blow to the two-term Republican who has been dogged by accusations and questions after recordings surfaced in 2016 of him making suggestive remarks to a female aide before his divorce.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a frequent Bentley critic who has also sued the governor multiple times, filed an ethics complaint against Bentley accusing him of using state resources to pursue a relationship with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who resigned shortly after the recordings became public. Bentley has acknowledged making personal mistakes but maintained he did nothing wrong.

Bentley attorney Bill Athanas said Wednesday that the governor maintains his innocence.

“We disagree strongly with the result but I think it is important to keep in mind that it is a finding of probable cause, not finding of a violation. … The battle goes on,” Athanas said.

Bentley was photographed by the Montgomery Advertiser leaving the Ethics Commission building several hours into the hearing, which holds high stakes for his political and legal future. His press office did not immediately respond to a question asking if he testified.

The other witnesses before the commission were expected to include Spencer Collier, the governor’s former law enforcement secretary and the first person to publicly raise concerns about the relationship; Ray Lewis, Bentley’s former bodyguard; and Secretary of State John Merrill, who raised legal concerns about Bentley using campaign funds to pay Mason’s legal bills.

Witnesses were brought to the commission room through a back entrance while more than a dozen reporters waited in the lobby, and police would not allow reporters to stand in the stairwell or near the building loading dock.

In a possible nod to the subject matter before them Wednesday, one commission member, during a public portion of the meeting, suggested that sex should be included as a “thing of value” under state ethics law, including it in the list of items that politicians are forbidden from swapping for political favors

Commissioner Stewart Hill Tankersley said he thought it was common sense to include it. His motion failed without a second from the four other commissioners.

The scandal has tarnished the reputation of the governor, a mild-mannered dermatologist and former Baptist deacon who attracted voters to his longshot Republican primary campaign in 2010 with his nice-guy image and promises not to accept a gubernatorial salary.

The outcome could give also political ammunition to lawmakers who want to impeach him.

The special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, which is conducting the impeachment investigation, tentatively plans to release his report Friday.


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