“Senator Sanders, I called to let you know that Governor Robert Bentley will resign at 5:00 p.m. today and Lt. Governor Kay Ivey will be sworn in at 5:30 p.m.” This was Monday, April 10. The caller was Sen. Quinton Ross, the Senate minority leader. With these words, we moved toward the close of another act in the continuing drama of falling leadership in Alabama. Neither transparency nor accountability.
To put this moment into context, we have to go back to the 2010 general election. Republicans ran on the collective platform of transparency and accountability. First, weeks before the general election, grand jury indictments were made public against four Alabama senators, three lobbyists, two businessmen, one consultant, and one state employee. As Democrats, we called them the bingo persecution cases. All of those who went to trial were found not guilty. Many of us felt that these charges were announced just before the November elections to advisedly color the moment and dovetail with the Republican election platform.
Republicans swept the 2010 Alabama electoral landscape, taking control of the Alabama Senate and House. They already had control of the governor’s office, the Alabama Supreme Court and virtually every other statewide office. Immediately, a special legislative session was called, and new ethics laws were passed to buttress the election theme.
Now we find ourselves in a situation unique among the 50 states: The Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme has been suspended from office for wrongdoing; the Speaker of the House of Representatives has been convicted and removed from office; others have been convicted and/or resigned and are no longer in office; investigations abound; and now, the Governor of Alabama has resigned with a plea deal.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. These are the words of British leader, Lord Acton, more than 200 years ago. They are as true today as they were in Acton’s time. And Republicans have absolute power in Alabama. They not only hold super majorities in both houses of the Alabama Legislature but every statewide office from governor and attorney general to state courts and public service commission and so on.
I was involved in the Bentley impeachment drama in a small but unique way. Preliminary impeachment flurries had abounded in the Alabama House of Representatives for more than a year. There were charges and countercharges in the media also. There were multiple investigations. My assumption was that impeachment was not likely to occur. But then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman appointed a four-member subcommittee to work on Senate rules for impeachment proceedings. I was one of the four. I knew then that impeachment was more than a vague possibility, but I still did not think it was likely to succeed. I was not alone in this assumption.
On April 5, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Gov. Robert Bentley had violated four ethics and/or campaign finance laws. These involved the use of state resources to further an alleged romantic affair and to cover up the affair, as well as the unlawful use of campaign funds to pay attorney fees for the said romantic partner. These charges were referred to the Montgomery County District Attorney for prosecution. The likelihood of impeachment rose dramatically, but it was still just a probability in my mind.
Then the drum roll for resignation commenced. On April 6, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh publically called for Governor Bentley to resign. The very next day, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon called for Bentley’s resignation. Others followed suit. I could hear the drum roll. I could see the handwriting on the wall. It was just a matter of time. But I did not expect a resignation to occur so suddenly.
A deal was struck. Bentley resigned and pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges. He was sentenced to serve 100 hours of community service (equivalent to 2 and ½ forty-hour work weeks) in the medical field (Bentley is a medical doctor). His rumored romantic partner was cleared of all charges. Another act in the Alabama political drama officially closed. But the larger drama continues because “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Epilogue – Lord Acton also said, “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism is the concentration of power.” I am constantly reminded that power is intoxicating. It is especially intoxicating for new imbibers. All these factors have come together for the Alabama drama of fallen leaders.