3 years ago

The untold story of how the secret Bentley-Mason affair recordings went public

Governor Robert Bentley takes questions from reporters. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Governor Robert Bentley takes questions from reporters. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

As I drove up U.S. Highway 280, swerving in and out of traffic and making my way from suburban Birmingham toward the city’s center, I thought about the events of the past year that had led up to this moment.

For many months the hottest rumor in Alabama politics was that Governor Robert Bentley had engaged in a long-running extramarital affair with his senior political advisor Rebekah Mason, a married mother of three. At first the idea seemed so absurd I dismissed it as politically motivated nonsense. Now, here I was, driving toward an obscure Birmingham gas station to obtain the indisputable evidence that it was all true.

For the week prior to this midnight meeting, I had been in discussions with confidential sources who claimed to be in possession of secret audio recordings of Governor Bentley and Mrs. Mason. The recordings, I was told, had been made by Governor Bentley’s then-wife, Dianne, and contained explicit details of the Bentley-Mason affair. The sources were wary of their identities being revealed, and one of the sources expressed concerns about the Bentleys’ grandchildren having to endure such embarrassment.

But they agreed on three key points:

Number one, that Robert Julian Bentley — the husband, father, church deacon, dermatologist and now governor — had allowed his once sterling character to be corroded by power.

Number two, that Rebekah Caldwell Mason — the local TV news anchor, small-time communications consultant and now senior advisor to the governor — had willfully destroyed the Bentleys’ marriage of 50 years while simultaneously consolidating near-full control of the executive branch of Alabama’s state government.

And number three, that the evidence they held could spark a seismic event in Alabama politics and bring the Bentley-Mason house of cards crumbling down.

In spite of their reservations about releasing the recordings, it was Governor Bentley’s arrogance, one of the sources said, that was too much for them to endure. While Mrs. Bentley struggled to understand what all had happened and mourned what she felt like was catastrophic damage to her “Christian witness,” her former husband continued to give his mistress unfettered access to every part of his life.

As he walked down the center aisle of the Old House Chamber after delivering the State of the State address, Mrs. Mason was by his side. When he was photographed at a swanky Washington, D.C., gala typically reserved for only governors and first ladies, she was his date. And when any meeting in the Capitol was concluded, she was always the last one left in the room with him.

The frustration and anger simmered for months, but it was now boiling over.

I pulled behind the gas station to find a thumb drive exactly where I was told it would be.

I jumped back in the car and rushed home, plugged the drive into my computer, opened the file, and within a few minutes I knew Governor Bentley’s legacy would forever be defined by what I was hearing.

Rebekah, I just, I miss you. I wish I was with you right now… You know, I worry about sometimes I love you so much, I worry about loving you so much… You’d kiss me? I love that. You know I do love that. You know what? When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close. Hey, I love that, too.

I cringed throughout the roughly 45-minutes of conversations between the two lovers, but also felt a strange sense of sadness about what had happened and what was surely to come. Families would never be the same. The Bentley and Mason children would endure undeserved ridicule. And the state would weather yet another torrent of embarrassing headlines.

I texted Rebekah Mason, “I know it’s late, but we may need to talk tonight.”

THE DE FACTO GOVERNOR


Rebekah Mason
Rebekah Mason, former senior advisor to Governor Robert Bentley (Photo: Contributed)

My relationship with Mrs. Mason had been up and down over the last several years.

In 2012, Mason, who was at the time the administration’s communications director, sought my advice on the administration’s plans to bolster its online presence. We met for lunch in Birmingham and I offered some thoughts on what later became the Governor’s NewsRoom.

In early 2014, Mason again asked for my thoughts on language in the Governor’s State of the State address, which she hoped would put to bed rumors that he was planning to expand Medicaid after getting re-elected.

But several months later we had a falling out when Yellowhammer published a story pointing out that they were once again refusing to say the governor would not expand Medicaid “under any scenario.”

Tensions rose again in 2015 when Yellowhammer ran a series of stories on Governor Bentley’s decision to go back on his campaign promise to not raise taxes, capped off by an April Fools headline declaring, “Bentley makes it official, switches to Democratic Party,” which caused the phone lines in the Capitol to melt down.

But Mrs. Mason expressed appreciation last year when Yellowhammer criticized other media outlets for publishing tabloid-style stories on the affair rumors, which at the time were unsubstantiated. I told her at the time that I thought the coverage by other outlets had been unethical. I still believe it was.

I decided I was not going to drop the story on the recordings until I had given her a chance to comment.

But I did not hear back until the following morning.

BENTLEY ALONE

Last fall, I called Governor Bentley on his cell phone on a Saturday afternoon.

I know it was a Saturday because we were both watching college football — me at my suburban Birmingham home, him at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery. He was sick and had almost completely lost his voice, but was in good spirits, in spite of the controversy swirling around him.

I told him I was not calling about anything in particular, but just wanted to tell him I had been praying for him and his family.

We spoke for about 10 minutes, but it was not until we got off the phone that I had a revelation.

While the rest of Alabama was engulfed in a typical college football weekend and likely surrounded by friends and family, the state’s governor was home alone, estranged from his family and an outcast in his own party.

It would be several months before more details of his moral and ethical failures would go public, but there was already a very real sense that he was on an island — that all he had left was the office he holds and that he would not give it up voluntarily and relegate himself to an early retirement of obscurity.

MASON’S CHANCE TO COME CLEAN

The morning after I obtained the audio recordings I spoke on the phone with Rebekah Mason for almost an hour. It was a roller-coaster conversation that made it abundantly clear that, in spite of Mrs. Mason’s communications background and the obvious dangers of carrying on an affair with the governor, there had not been much thought given to what they would say if they were ever caught red-handed.

She wanted to hear the recordings. I told her that was not possible.

Then came the excuses.

Sometimes when you’re a woman working in politics, she said, you have to just let inappropriate comments roll off of you like water off a duck’s back.

I stopped her from continuing and told her the recordings did not support that narrative. I could feel her anxiety growing.

“What should I do?” She asked.

My advice was very simple: Tell the truth.

It became clear that she was deeply conflicted. She did not want her children to hear what must be on the recordings. She did not want to be a front page headline and the butt of every joke in Montgomery, like Goat Hill’s version of Monica Lewinksy. But she also did not want to give up just yet. Her unlikely rise from small town television anchor to the most powerful political operative in the state had not come easy, and she was not convinced the ride was over.

She asked for an hour to think. I agreed.

She texted me several times asking for more details about the recordings. She said she and the governor were meeting about what to do.

One hour turned into several hours, and I texted her one last time saying I could not wait any longer to run the story, even though I wanted to include a comment from her or the governor.

Silence.

I hit “publish,” closed my computer and sat back in my chair.

My phone buzzed a few minutes later. It was Mrs. Mason.

“I’m sorry,” she texted.

The story was international news within the hour.


6 hours ago

Mobile Bay Bridge project awarded $125 million grant by Trump administration

The I-10 Mobile Bayway Bridge project has been awarded a $125 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The announcement was made Monday by Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) office, which said the amount signifies one of the largest competitive federal grants ever awarded to the state of Alabama.

Additionally, the city of Tuscaloosa was separately awarded a $6.87 million INFRA grant to help replace an overpass bridge located on University Boulevard and U.S. Highway 82.

“Both of these projects will help improve safety, alleviate traffic congestion and concerns with overcapacity, and promote increased economic development opportunities across the state,” Shelby said in a statement.

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“Investing in essential infrastructure in Alabama and across the country promotes a more prosperous future for our nation,” he concluded. “I thank (U.S. DOT) Secretary Chao for her attention to these projects and look forward to continuing my work to ensure that our state is well represented in any effort to fund federal transportation priorities.”

The federal award to the I-10 Mobile Bayway Bridge project comes amid significant controversy over the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) plan to pay for the project, at least partially, through tolling. The total projected cost of the project is approximately $2 billion.

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) has previously lamented that ALDOT was not more focused on securing federal money and avoiding tolling, even as Alabama federal officials like Byrne and Shelby worked to secure funding access.

ALDOT was previously turned down for a $250 million federal grant application for the project last year.

Byrne led Alabama’s entire House delegation in sending a bipartisan letter to Chao in February in support of funding the project with an INFRA grant.

After the news of the award broke on Monday, Byrne released a statement celebrating the news and reaffirming his opposition to ALDOT’s tolling proposal.

“This is outstanding news for the people of Southwest Alabama! Fighting for federal funding for this bridge has been one of my top priorities in Congress, and I am glad the Trump Administration has come through with this grant award,” Byrne said. “I am very appreciative of the help from our entire Alabama congressional delegation, especially Senator Richard Shelby.”

“Today is a positive step toward making this project a reality, but our work is not over,” he added. “The current tolling proposal for this project is unacceptable, and I will continue leading the fight against tolling and working to ensure this project helps – not hurts – the people of South Alabama.”

The tolling proposal has also become a statewide political piñata, with 2020 Republican U.S. Senate candidates such as Tommy Tuberville and Secretary of State John Merrill coming out swinging in addressing the topic recently.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

Byrne: Border battle harms Alabama communities

The detrimental effects of the humanitarian and national security crisis on our border extend all the way to Alabama communities. That’s why I’ve made it a priority to address our immigration policies.

One of the most obvious ways our insecure border harms our communities is the drug trade. Our porous border is perhaps the most significant contributing factor to the ongoing opioid crisis — the worst drug epidemic in modern American history. In 2017, over 47,000 lives were claimed by opioids. That’s more than those from car accidents and firearms. These deaths have affected families across our great state.

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The drug problem is made worse by the unprecedented migrant surge. James Carroll, director of the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy, said just last week that drug seizures are down this year because so much attention is being diverted to humanitarian needs.

Because of that diversion, border patrol agents and resources are unable to be allocated towards their fundamental law enforcement functions. According to Carroll, more drugs are coming in than ever before.

One of the primary drivers of the migrant crisis is our asylum policy. Through a combination of loopholes worsened by a legal settlement made by the Clinton administration, migrants are encouraged to cross our border and give themselves up to law enforcement.

After arrest, migrants claiming asylum are eventually permitted entrance into the country while their claims are processed. This is permitted even when migrants do not cross at a legal checkpoint.

Although, by some estimates, only around a tenth of asylum claims are found by our courts to be legitimate, the vast majority never show up for their court date and remain free inside the United States.

A disproportionate number of these asylum claims are made by able-bodied young men. Only a few months ago, a Mobile teacher was killed in a car crash by an illegal immigrant minor who had falsely claimed asylum but never showed at his court date to avoid deportation.

The coyotes and cartels, of course, have every reason to facilitate migrants along their journey and orchestrate lawlessness at the border.

Last week, one of the biggest points of entry at the Southern border had to be shut down after a wave of nearly 50 undocumented immigrants rushed the border into Texas. The group attempted to tear down barricades and assaulted several border patrol officers who were forced to deploy tear gas and pepper balls.

Let’s call these people what they are – criminals. And while border agents were able to keep these criminals out of our communities, many more slip through the cracks while agents deal with illegal stunts like this and the humanitarian needs of asylee claimants.

Last year, a 13-year-old girl in Huntsville was beheaded after witnessing the stabbing of her grandmother by gang members in a horrific incident involving members of the Sinaloa Cartel. It is disheartening that gangs like MS-13 have infiltrated communities throughout our nation, but stories like this reinforce the sad truth that the problem is impacting Alabamians.

There are other significant problems that do not receive headlines. I’ve spoken with Alabama sheriffs who have shared horror stories about the strain illegal immigration places on their deputies. And I’ve talk to incredibly frustrated school superintendents who must divert resources away from educating local students to deal with their illegal immigrant population. Our hospitals are also placed under enormous burdens by illegal immigration. And governments are forced to pay for services for illegal immigrants that could have gone towards roads, bridges and other services for Americans.

This is not just a Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California issue. This is an Alabama issue. I will continue standing with President Trump and work to get an immigration system that works for the American people.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.

8 hours ago

Boating deaths are soaring on Alabama’s lakes and rivers

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama has already had its deadliest year in two decades for boaters — and the summer isn’t nearly over yet.

Boating accidents in the first 6 ½ months of 2019 have killed 25 people, AL.com reported.

Already, that makes this year the deadliest one since 1998, when 32 people died. The number of deaths so far this year is already higher than year-end totals for the past several years.

This July alone, 12 crashes resulted in six deaths.

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“In my 24 years of doing this, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Capt. Gary Buchanan, the commander of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol.

Investigators can’t definitively pinpoint the cause for this year’s drastic increase, Buchanan said.

“Some have happened at night, some during the day, some have involved one boat, some two boats and alcohol has been a factor in some,” Buchanan said. “It’s all over the spectrum.”

There has been a decrease in Marine Patrol presence on Alabama’s lakes and rivers. There are roughly 45 Marine Patrol current officers throughout Alabama. There are 21 vacancies — jobs that were all filled 10 to 15 years ago, Al.com reported.

Boater registrations have also increased in recent years.

“There’s an increase in boaters and there are fewer Marine Patrol troopers on the waterways,” Buchanan said. “There’s no doubt that an enforcement presence has an effect on behavior, just like when you top that hill and you see a trooper car in front of you.”

The year with the most boating-related fatalities was 1972, which had a year-end total of 55. The year with the fewest, according to ALEA statistics, was 2013, with 10.

(Associated Press, copyright 2019)

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9 hours ago

Alabama K9 officer dies after drug raid

“Jake,” a K9 officer with the Alabama Department of Corrections, has died following a raid Thursday on Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County.

CBS 42 reported last week that Jake was recovering after having a medical emergency during a contraband raid at the prison. He reportedly came into contact with synthetic marijuana and became unresponsive. Medical personnel and his handler at the prison then heroically performed live-saving measures on the K9, who was expected to return to duty within a few weeks.

However, CBS 42′ Reshad Hudson reported on Monday that Jake died from complications following the initial incident.

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WSFA is reporting that Jake died on Saturday at Auburn University Veterinary Clinic.

“I was saddened to hear that one of the Corrections K9s, Jake, lost his life over the weekend,” Governor Kay Ivey said. “This K9 died in service to public safety and in service to the state. Jake is an example of the goodness, the loyalty and service that our four-legged friends provide. We certainly lost a loyal companion.”

A criminal investigation into Jake’s death is reportedly underway. More testing of the apparent synthetic marijuana is pending, according to ADOC. Officials told WSFA that anyone found to be responsible in Jake’s death will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Jake had worked with his handler, Sgt. Quinton Jones, since the K9 joined ADOC in 2014.

“This is a difficult time for our ADOC family and especially for Sgt. Jones and those assigned to our K9 Bureau who worked with Jake on a daily basis,” ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn told WSFA. “I extend our deepest condolences for the loss of this noble K9 who honorably served the State of Alabama and for ultimately giving his life while protecting the public.”

Dunn added that Jake likely saved lives by detecting the substance during the raid.

“With Jake’s training and ability to find the narcotic, he saved other lives by giving his own in the line-of-duty. Jake’s heroism and ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten,” he emphasized.

Jake will be given a burial with full honors this week, according to WSFA.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

11 hours ago

Byrne visiting U.S.-Mexico border on Monday

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) is visiting the United States’ southern border on Monday, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate’s office announced in a release.

Byrne reportedly arrived at the border Monday morning and will meet with Customs and Border Protection officials, tour a port of entry and visit an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility.

“As the national security and humanitarian crisis at our border escalates, it is important to see the situation firsthand and talk directly with border agents, law enforcement, and local officials about the challenges they face and what resources they need,” Byrne said in a statement.

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He has been a consistent supporter of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“The American people have demanded a lawful system of immigration that protects their economic and personal safety, and I will continue working closely with President Trump and his Administration to secure our border, support law enforcement, and keep the American people safe,” Byrne concluded.

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) has opposed building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn