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Bentley grand jury ends with request to boost law

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A grand jury on Wednesday closed an investigation surrounding former Gov. Robert Bentley and others without any indictments, but called for strengthening ethics law that hindered bringing charges, a special prosecutor announced.

Special prosecutor Ellen Brooks made the announcement at a news conference at the attorney general’s office in Montgomery that no additional charges were coming after the yearlong investigation. The announcement caps a two-year legal and political saga centered on Bentley’s alleged affair with a former top staffer, political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason who worked in his administration but wasn’t on state payroll.

“Had there been evidence to support any additional charges, we would have brought them. I’m a career prosecutor. This is what I do,” Brooks said.

The decision not to bring charges clears a legal cloud that had still been hanging over Mason and Bentley. Bentley stepped down April 10, 2017, ending a push to impeach him in the Alabama Legislature. He then pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance violations, including using campaign funds to pay nearly $9,000 in Mason’s legal bills.

“We appreciate that the grand jury’s report confirms what we told the Ethics Commission over a year ago: Governor Bentley never violated the Ethics Act by misusing his official position. The Commission’s contrary finding and referral for prosecution was unsupported, unjustified and simply wrong,” Bill Athanas, an attorney representing Bentley, said.

The Alabama Ethics Commission, days before Bentley’s resignation, had recommended possible prosecution against Bentley in two areas: the campaign finance charges — which Bentley pleaded guilty to — and an ethics accusation that he had used the resources of his office to advance, or hide, a relationship with Mason.

An email to Mason’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned.

The grand jury report issued Wednesday focused on gaps in state law.

“We found a number of serious concerns about current state law that hinder successful prosecution,” the grand jury report states.

Brooks said investigators examined potential charges on the use of state resources and public office for personal benefit or financial gain. Brooks said that there was either no evidence that Bentley and others received illegal financial gain, or the individuals were not covered by state ethics law.

However, panel members said they found “serious concerns about current state law that hinder successful prosecution.” Brooks said she hopes it will be “an additional spur for action to be taken.”

Lawmakers next year expect to consider a rewrite of state ethics law.

The panel said the concerns about state law included:
— That the state ethics law covers spouses, but not romantic relationships.
— State law does not prohibit non-government personnel from performing the functions of a public employee while being paid by a private entity and there is a question whether the state ethics law covers such individuals. Mason worked in the governor’s office but was paid by Bentley’s campaign. The governor also at one point had an acting chief of staff who was paid by a power company.
— The law does not prevent the governor, who appoints the Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary, from directing, initiating or receiving reports on criminal investigations for illegitimate political purposes.

Brooks hinted charges might have been possible if non-spousal relationships had been covered under state ethics law, but did not elaborate.

“I learned a long time ago never to speak for a grand jury but I would suspect there would be a different report,” she replied to a reporter’s question.

Brooks said Bentley had been punished with the guilty pleas.

“He will always be a convicted criminal. That’s the label now for him,” Brooks said.

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