Governor’s appointments raise ethics questions

Published 12:08 am Saturday, February 11, 2017

Luther Strange got his dream job this week when Gov. Robert Bentley used the stroke of his powerful pen to appoint him to the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General.

The Homewood native had spent most of his career as a Washington lobbyist before entering the political arena as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006. He lost to Jim Folsom Jr. in a race that produced some of the state’s most memorable campaign commercials.

In 2010, he ran a successful campaign for attorney general, and won reelection in 2014. He was constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term in the AG’s office, and was expected to make a run for the governor’s office in 2018.

But all along, politicos agreed that Strange was just biding his time, building his name recognition for an eventual run at the U.S. Senate, likely if our elder statesman, Sen. Richard Shelby, retired.

Those plans changed when Trump won the presidency in November, and rumors began circulating about Sessions’ eventual role in a Trump White House. Who, then, would the governor appoint to the Senate seat?

Smart money was on Strange. And despite press releases that included six names on the short list, Bentley was said to be interviewing candidates for Alabama attorney general before Sessions was confirmed on Wednesday. When that confirmation happened, Bentley began moving at what, for him, is breakneck speed, appointing Strange early Thursday, and Strange’s successor Friday afternoon.

So Luther Strange, who was already raising money for a 2018 run for the Senate, got his dream job. The biggest question now is what did Bentley get?

In November, Strange asked the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating Bentley as part of an impeachment attempt that began last spring, to pause. At the request of our own Rep. Mike Jones, Strange put that request in writing, saying that the probe might “intersect with certain issues and witnesses” in an AG investigation.

Thursday, Strange claimed he “never said in our office we are investigating the governor.” But let’s be perfectly clear: the legislative committee was only investigating one person, and he asked them to stop.

Did Bentley ask Strange for anything – like the end of an investigation – in return for the coveted appointment? If he did, that would be a worse crime than using state funds to facilitate an affair, allegations which began the impeachment process.

Or, did Bentley ask the man he appointed late Friday to replace Strange, former Marshall County DA Steve Marshall, not to continue the investigation?

“It’s awkward.”

That’s what Sen. Del Marsh, who also was on the short list for the U.S. Senate appointment, said when asked about it this week.

The grandfatherly governor, who won grassroots support in 2010 against a more polished Bradley Byrne with his folksy, “Alabama is hurting, and she needs a doctor,” seems to have caught the ethics-eating virus that lurks in Montgomery.

Only time will tell if the investigation will be completed, or if perhaps, Bentley is indeed innocent.

Until then, “awkward” is an understatement.


Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Star-News.