The impeachment investigation that led to Alabama’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s resignation, arrest and conviction Monday surfaced more than just the alleged misuse of public funds to hide his affair with a top political aide, the cringe-y texts to his paramour, and the threats lobbed towards those who stood ready to expose their tryst.
The report released Friday shed light on another controversy that dogged his tenure: his administration’s decision to close 31 driver’s license offices, many in African-American-heavy counties, prompting a national outcry over how the closures would affect voting rights in the state, which requires a photo ID to vote.
The impeachment investigation report – which was compiled by a special counsel appointed by the legislature – concluded that the driver’s license office closures were politically motivated and ordained by the aide at the center of the scandal, Rebekah Mason, as a way to pressure state legislators into getting in line in support of the governor’s funding legislation.
Former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency head Spencer Collier, who oversaw the operations of the offices, told the impeachment investigators “that Mason proposed closing multiple driver’s license offices throughout the State and asked ALEA to put together a plan,” according to the report.
“It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies,” the report continued.
The closures had a disproportionate impact the state’s “Black Belt” – a reference to its dark topsoil and its African American population – and were widely denounced given that minority communities are already less likely to have the IDs required to vote and more reliant on public transport, making travel to obtain a license difficult. Propelled by the closures, civil rights rights groups ultimately sued Alabama over its photo voter ID law in a case that it still proceeding.
Whether making it harder for black people to vote was part of Mason’s motivation in ordering the closures – or a factor in how the governor’s office handled the fallout that ensued – is subject to debate. The findings in Friday’s report suggest that, regardless, the closures were not merely an effort to save money, as initially billed, but political hardball designed to squeeze legislators at the expense of their constituents’ access to the ballot box.
“It sort of goes to the ridiculousness of the closures initially, that this was talked about not just in terms of how we can save money, but it was talked about in terms of how we can benefit ourselves politically,” said Deuel Ross, an NAACP-LDF lawyer who is working on the voter ID lawsuit. “And then it was done in such a way that obviously harmed African Americans. “
According to Friday’s report, Mason acting as an intermediary between ALEA and the governor’s office was on its own noteworthy, as in years prior Collier met with Bentley directly to discuss strategies for dealing with potential budget cuts. Collier, according to the report, claimed to have expressed concerns at the time about the closures and even filed a report with the state Attorney General’s office, given the potential for a violation of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting policies that disproportionately burden minority communities.
(Alabama’s then-Attorney General Luther Strange is now a U.S. senator, having been chosen by Bentley to fill the seat vacated by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is now in charge of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. Strange’s Senate office did not return TPM’s inquiry about the closures.)
Collier ultimately created his own “objective” scheme, based in “processed transactions per year” to justify the closures, according to the report. When a county represented by a political ally of Bentley, state Sen. Gerald Dial (R), was swept up in the metric, Bentley requested that the DMV office in his district not be among those closed, the report said.
Collier was ultimately fired by Bentley months later, in what resulted in a public back-and-forth between the two over the reasons he had been pushed out. Among other things, Collier claims he had been investigating Bentley’s alleged affair with Mason.
The impeachment report’s summary of Collier’s characterizations about the DMV closures is similar to the November 2016 deposition he gave in the NAACP-LDF lawsuit, where he, Bentley and other state officials were being sued for constitutional and VRA violations. Collier’s deposition also recounted his meeting with Mason about the potential for budget cuts.
“In that meeting, she recommended we need to get the attention of legislators that were not supporting the governor’s budget and tax increase,” Collier said, according to the court documents.
Collier said in the deposition that he asked his staff to “come up with a plan we can defend, it’s constitutional, it’s legal, and it has a matrix that we can stick by.”
He maintained communications, his deposition said, with the state legislators whose districts would be affected, particularly those in Alabama’s black legislative caucus, whom Collier recalled railing against the cuts in floor speeches.
“[M]embers of the black Caucus and the entire democratic Caucus, mentioned to us it was just unacceptable,” Collier said, according to the court docs. “I’ll be candid, I never thought that budget would pass. Of course, we had to prepare for the worse, and then we wound up doing it.”
He denied, however, that the decision to close to the closures was made with African American voting rights in mind, an assessment his lawyer, Kenneth Mendelsohn reiterated to TPM Monday.
“In Rebekah’s mind, I don’t think it had anything to do against voting or discriminating against people,” Mendelsohn told TPM over the phone. “It was to get the legislators to come over to her and her boyfriend’s state of mind about what they were proposing the legislators.”
Nevertheless the closures – which included DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters – attracted national attention for their voting rights implications. Prominent civil rights leaders traveled to the state to highlight the issue. Alabama’s only black U.S. representative, Democrat Terri Sewell, requested a federal investigation into the closures. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for president, called the closures a “blast from the Jim Crow past.”
Bentley denied that race was a factor in the decision-making and accused advocates of politicizing the issue. Alabama’s top elections official, Secretary of State John Merrill told TPM at the time that while the closures posed “a real inconvenience” for those seeking a driver’s license, voting rights weren’t being harmed because the state also offered a voter ID card available at local board of registrars offices.
The U.S. Department of Transportation opened a civil rights investigation into the closures that ultimately resulted in a deal between the feds and the state establishing minimum DMV operating hours in certain counties. That deal was reached in December, after the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, a bill pushed by Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders (D) before the election that would have required the offices be open for at least two days per week was pocket-vetoed by Bentley last May. The proposal had passed the Alabama legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan support. But at the time of the pocket veto, Bentley’s office gave no reason for his refusal to sign the legislation.
Impeachment hearings were set to go through this week until Bentley on Monday resigned and pleaded guilty to two counts related to his use of campaign funds, after negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors.
Last week, the federal judge overseeing the NAACP-LDF case against the voter ID law denied the motion by Merrill to dismiss the case (Bentley and the other state officials have been dropped from the suit). The opinion also hinted that the DMV closures will be among the factors the court will be examining in determining whether Alabama’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act.