On Wednesday night, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was confirmed by the Senate to serve as our nation’s next attorney general. By 7 a.m. on Thursday, Gov. Bentley had turned a positive moment in our State’s history into a national embarrassment. In appointing Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to be Sessions’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, Bentley legitimized his critics and showed the world just how corrupt the State of Alabama can be.
To be clear, I don’t dislike Luther Strange. I have met him on several occasions and he has always come across as a genuinely nice person. I don’t agree with all of his political opinions, but I have always seen him as a respectable politician and a fairly solid conservative. His appointment under different circumstances would’ve been a non-issue for me. However, due to his role in the potential impeachment and criminal investigation of Gov. Bentley, this appointment is yet another shameful moment for our State.
In his capacity as Attorney General of Alabama, Luther Strange was trusted with upholding the laws of this State. When it was revealed that Gov. Bentley had an extramarital affair with a senior staffer, the people of Alabama trusted Strange’s office to conduct an investigation into the allegations of criminal misconduct. Whether that investigation ever occurred or not is still unclear. What is clear is that Luther Strange appeared to make moves that helped Bentley avoid impeachment and investigation from the Alabama State Legislature.
The Alabama House Judiciary Committee decided to investigate the Bentley affair and determine if state funds were used to cover it up – a crime under Alabama law. The committee was assembled after State Representative Ed Henry rounded up signatures and filed articles of impeachment against the governor. However, in November of last year the committee announced that it would suspend its investigation at the request of Attorney General Strange. Strange authored a letter to the committee chairman asking him to halt the investigation until the attorney general’s office had completed “related work.” At the time, most expected this to mean that a criminal indictment was imminent, but today that request seems very different.
Many have suggested that Alabama just witnessed our own Blagojevich moment, except in this case the governor sold the seat for a get-out-of-jail free card instead of cash. Gov. Bentley now gets to appoint the next attorney general, who will take over whatever is left of the criminal investigation into the governor’s conduct. The time for impeachment seems to have come and gone as the judiciary committee has waited months on Strange’s orders to continue. Strange has already been sworn in as a U.S. Senator. When the special election for his seat comes up almost two years from now, he will have the advantage of being the incumbent. I don’t know if a crooked bargain was made – we will likely never know – but if the appearance of one doesn’t bode well for either of the men. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire; and in this case there is a lot of smoke.
Even if both Gov. Bentley and Sen. Strange are innocent of wrongdoing, the appearance of quid pro quo should’ve been enough to stop this appointment. In a state that has endured the criminal bribery conviction of the head of its legislative branch and the removal of the head of its judicial branch, the last thing Alabama needed was even the appearance of corruption from its executive branch. Unfortunately, our state’s leaders have let us down again.
Josh Shumate is a graduate student studying public administration. His column runs biweekly.