MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Christian Examiner) – Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has been charged with state ethics violations after an audio recording was released last week featuring the governor making sexually-charged comments to his senior political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell-Mason.
Both Bentley and Mason were reportedly attendees of First Baptist Church Tuscaloosa two years ago when the two were engaged in an inappropriate relationship and the audio recording was made. Neither attends the church now.
The Christian News Network originally reported that Bentley and Mason had been put out of the church, but the circumstances of their departure and when that departure occurred both remain unclear. The report from the Christian site featured comments from the church's senior pastor, Gil McKee, which seemed to indicate the departure was recent.
"While church discipline is a church family matter, both Gov. Robert Bentley and Mrs. Rebekah Mason are no longer members of First Baptist Church Tuscaloosa," McKee said in the report. "I continue to pray for each of them."
Bentley, however, has been a member of First Baptist Church Prattville since sometime last year. A call to the church from an editor with Christian Examiner confirmed the governor is a member of the church.
Christian Examiner also reached out to McKee to clarify the circumstances of the governor's departure from the Tuscaloosa church's fellowship. McKee has yet to respond and confirm if the extra-marital affair was the reason for the church's action or if Bentley and Mason left voluntarily.
In the recording released last week, Bentley describes a physical encounter between him and Mason. He then laughs and tells Mason he loves her.
"I love you. I love to talk to you," Bentley says to Mason. "Baby, let me tell you what we're going to have to start doing, we're going to have to start locking the door. If we are going to do what we did the other day, we are going to have to start locking the door."
The remainder of the recording is too graphic for Christian Examiner to print.
Questions about the relationship between Bentley and Mason had been percolating since the governor's 50-year marriage ended in divorce last year. No reason for the divorce was given in the filing by Bentley or his ex-wife, Dianne Jones-Bentley, leaving many to wonder if an extra-marital affair was reason.
That cause now seems to be confirmed, as Jones-Bentley provided the audio recording made with her cell phone after she suspected the affair between her husband and Mason.
On March 23, Bentley claimed in a press conference that, in spite of the sexually explicit language in the phone call, he and Mason had not been physically intimate.
"Two years ago, I made a mistake. I have rectified that. I have dealt with that, and I have moved on," Bentley said, before claiming he had not yet heard the audio recording. However, he insisted, "That is not a physical relationship, making those statements."
But Alabama's former secretary of law enforcement, Spencer Collier, who was fired March 22 – the day before the governor's admission to the audio recording – for "acting erratically" on the job, has claimed he was aware of the relationship. He also said Mason wielded undue influence over Bentley and she was the "de facto" governor of the state.
Mason refuted Collier's allegations in a written statement issued just before the governor's press conference. In it, she claimed Collier was attacking her on the basis of "gender bias."
"There is no way that man [Collier] would have said what he did ... about another man. He only said what he said about my professional abilities because I am a woman. His comments were clear, demonstrated gender bias," Mason said.
"Since 2010, I have proudly served as Gov. Robert Bentley's campaign press secretary, communications director, advisor, campaign communications director and now senior policy advisor. It is an honor to serve our governor and the people of our state."
On March 25, State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission over the governor's alleged affair. In the complaint, he claimed that the governor had used state resources and property "in furtherance of their personal relationship."
He detailed the contents of the audio recording and said that the incident described on the recording occurred on state property, as evidenced by the reference to "Wanda's desk."
The complaint also alleges state employees were instructed to lie to protect the governor and that Mason, who is paid by the governor as a senior adviser with public funds, is also paid by her own firm. That payment makes her a lobbyist, placing the relationship between her and the governor into the category of influencing government improperly.
Bentley said during his press conference that he believes in a God of grace "who loves me, and He loves me even through my mistakes."
"He uses difficult times in our lives – and I've been going through those – to make me better and make other people around me better," he said.
Those difficult times – very clearly of his making – are not over. The seriousness of the allegations have led many legislators to call for the governor's resignation.