Alabama governor could face prosecution after ethics ruling

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, file photo, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, in Montgomery, Ala. The Alabama Ethics Commission could weigh in soon on whether there's reason to believe Bentley broke state law in a scandal that has engulfed him for a year. The commission is expected to go behind closed doors Wednesday, April 5 to consider the matter. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley could face criminal prosecution after a state ethics panel found probable cause that he broke 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 four issues to the district attorney's office, which will decide whether to pursue charges. The commission found probable cause that Bentley misused state resources and campaign funds, improperly accepted a campaign donation outside an allowed fundraising window and loaned himself campaign money when he was not a candidate.

The decision was a legal and political blow to the 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. 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. Athanas said he plans to talk to prosecutors and said there is no basis for charges.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler 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.

Zeigler praised the decision, but also emphasized it was "only the first step."

"I am pleased that the governor is going to finally face accountability and sad for the state of Alabama that we've had to go through this the last year-and-a-half," he said.

Bentley was photographed by the Montgomery Advertiser leaving the Ethics Commission building several hours into the high-stakes hearing. Athanas declined to say whether he testified.

The commission did not give much detail about the accusations against Bentley. On the ethics complaint, the commission found there was probable cause that he used public resources, including "subordinate personnel, equipment and time all under his discretion or control to further his personal interests." It did not elaborate.

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.

Merrill had raised concerns about Bentley using nearly $9,000 in campaign funds to pay a lawyer representing Mason, saying that was not a permissible use of campaign funds under state law.

The governor, who by law cannot seek re-election, last year also reported lending his campaign $50,000 as he emptied his campaign account to pay legal bills.

The scandal has tarnished the reputation of the 74-year-old 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. While Bentley won re-election in 2014 by an overwhelming margin, his popularity has plummeted after the accusations.

The outcome could give also political ammunition to lawmakers who want to impeach him. Twenty-three lawmakers last year filed impeachment articles against Bentley accusing him of corruption and neglect of duty. The special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, which is conducting the impeachment investigation, tentatively plans to release his report Friday.

Ross Garber, the lawyer representing Bentley in the impeachment investigation, has urged lawmakers to be cautious, saying only the most egregious conduct merits removal. Garber, who also represented South Carolina and Connecticut governors during impeachment probes, said only two governors have been removed in modern times and both were facing criminal indictment.

The Ethics Commission action came 12 months after the emergence of the scandal in which Bentley could be heard in a 2014 recording telling a woman, "I worry about loving you so much," and talking about touching her breasts.

The governor in a press conference after the tape's release assured voters he had done nothing legally wrong but said he had erred in his personal life and apologized to the state and his family.

"I made a mistake. Two years ago, I made a mistake," Bentley said last year.