‘Corrupt Bargain’ That Put Luther Strange in U.S. Senate Under Scrutiny in Complaint Filed with Alabama Ethics Commission

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 4: GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., left, speaks with a supporter after the U.S. Senate candidate forum held by the Shelby County Republican Party in Pelham, Ala., on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. Sen. Strange is running in the special election to fill …
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

When disgraced former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley appointed Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to the United States Senate to replace current United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, cries of “corrupt bargain” rang across the state.

Strange and Judge Roy Moore face off in the Republican runoff election next Tuesday, September 26, to select the party’s nominee for the December 12 general election to replace Sessions in the Senate. The Real Clear Politics average of polls currently gives Moore an 8.8 percent lead over Strange. President Trump has inexplicably endorsed Strange, going against his political base, which vigorously supports Moore. The president is scheduled to hold a rally with Strange in Huntsville, Alabama this Friday.

The term “corrupt bargain” first appeared in American political history in the election of 1824, when third place finisher Henry Clay of Kentucky threw his support to second place finisher John Quincy Adams in return for his appointment as Secretary of State, thus depriving first place finisher Andrew Jackson of the presidency–at least until the election of 1828 four years later.

On August 9, Alabama real estate developer Stan Pate filed a complaint against Strange with the Alabama Ethics Commission alleging that Bentley’s appointment of Strange to the vacant U.S. Senate seat was “an unethical and illegal act by the two parties.”

Strange, a former Washington lobbyist whose campaign for the U.S. Senate has received significant donations from his former lobbying colleagues and dozens of political action committees, was first elected Attorney General of Alabama in 2010. Re-elected to his second four-year term in 2014, he was sworn in to office again in January 2015.

Pate’s complaint outlines the chronology of subsequent events:

  • On April 5, 2016, an impeachment resolution was filed against Governor Bentley in the Alabama State Legislature. This resolution prompted the House Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment investigation into the charges on July 7, 2016.
  • On November 3, 2016, [Attorney General] Strange sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee requesting they put a hold on their active impeachment investigation of Governor Bentley. Strange, as Attorney General, an office charged with investigating and prosecuting alleged criminal actions of Alabama’s elected officials, called for a cessation into the investigation into Governor Bentley.
  • On December 6, 2016, Strange publicly announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat that would soon be vacated by Jeff Sessions.
  • In mid-December, Governor Bentley began interviewing candidates for the U.S. Senate seat. Twenty qualified candidates were interviewed, including Strange. In accepting and proceeding with the interview, Strange actively engaged in behavior that was in conflict of interest with his duties and obligations as Attorney General. Strange, as Attorney General, was charged with investigating and prosecuting Governor Bentley’s alleged criminal conduct
  • Instead, in January of 2017, he [Strange] again called for the investigation to be put on hold and then interviewed with Governor Bentley for an appointment to U.S. Senator.
  • On February 9. 2017, Governor Bentley appointed Strange to Sessions’ former U.S. Senate seat.

“When Strange was appointed, Bentley was able to pick a new state attorney general. The ultimate selection, Steve Marshall, confirmed an investigation into Bentley and appointed a special prosecutor, who negotiated a plea deal in exchange for Bentley’s resignation,”  the Washington Examiner reported last month.

On April 11, 2017 “Embattled Gov. Robert Bentley this afternoon agreed to a deal that forced him to resign the office of governor, plead guilty to two misdemeanors and agree to never again hold public office,” AL.com reported.

The extraordinary agreement, hammered out over the weekend and throughout the day by lawyers for the Alabama Attorney General’s office and Bentley attorneys Chuck Malone and Cooper Shattuck, requires Bentley to repay the state for misused funds and perform community service.

In response, the state attorney general’s office will not pursue other felonies against Bentley, including those referred for prosecution last week by the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The charges against Bentley were compelling and salacious, as AL.com reported at the time:

Perhaps the most damage to Bentley came Friday, when the House Judiciary Committee – which has initiated impeachment proceedings against him – released the findings of lawyer Jack Sharman, who was hired to investigate Bentley and whether he used state money or resources to conduct or cover up an improper relationship.

The report was damning, including sworn testimony from current and former state employees who claim they were harassed and threatened as Bentley sought to keep the affair secret.

Tapes of conversations between Bentley and Mason were made public more than a year ago, after former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier revealed the affair. Bentley acknowledged making “inappropriate” sexually tinged comments to Mason, including now-infamous phrases about the way he liked to touch her breasts. Throughout, however, he has consistently denied having a sexual relationship.

The testimony and transcripts in the House report landed like a bomb Friday – even as Bentley lawyers went to court to stop impeachment proceedings and to prevent the report’s release. That fight was expected to continue in filings before the Alabama Supreme Court today, but the plea deal renders them moot.

When Lt. Governor Kay Ivey became governor upon Bentley’s resignation, one of her first act’s was to reverse Bentley’s previous decision as to the date of an election to select an elected, rather than appointed, successor to Sessions in the U.S. Senate.

On April 18, Governor Ivey “set a new timeline for a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shaving nearly a year from the previous plan,” as The Hill reported:

The new timeline sets the primary date for August 15. A runoff election is scheduled for Sept. 26, and the general election will take place on Dec. 12. The schedule marks a drastic change from the earlier timeline, which placed the general election on Nov. 6, 2018 — the same day as other midterm elections nationwide.

Three major candidates-Judge Roy Moore, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), and appointed Senator Luther Strange (R-AL)–competed for the Republican nomination in the August 15 primary.

On August 8, President Trump, inexplicably to most members of his base, endorsed Strange, the establishment favorite backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“[On August 9,] A day after President Trump gave a long-sought endorsement to Sen. Luther Strange, a wealthy businessman submitted complaints to Alabama’s ethics commission and the Senate ethics committee, alleging malfeasance in Strange’s Senate appointment. Developer Stan Pate says he spent $100,000 in Facebook ads branding Strange’s appointment as part of a corrupt bargain with former Gov. Robert Bentley, and says he’s concerned about the potential impact of Trump’s tweeted endorsement,” the Washington Examiner reported.

Since no candidate in the August 15 Republican primary received a majority of the votes cast, the top two finishers–Moore and Strange–qualified for the September 26 runoff, which will be held one week from today. The winner of that runoff will face the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, in the December 12 general election.

Pate’s complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission alleges “Strange violated the Alabama Ethics Law in each of the following instances,” specifically:

  1. By announcing publicly his desire to be appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, he sent a voiced message to Governor Bentley he could be manipulated with the same.
  2. By accepting and following through with an interview with Governor Bentley for the position of U.S. Senator he engaged in negotiations for a thing of value from an individual whom his office was charged with investigating and prosecuting.
  3. By suspending the investigation into Governor Bentley, Luther Strange deceived the citizens of the State of Alabama. Common sense is that a deal was agreed upon by then Governor Bentley and then Attorney General Strange–an unethical and illegal act by the two parties.

“Although the Alabama Ethics Commission’s work outside of public meetings is opaque, the body played a significant role in Bentley’s downfall, referring to prosecutors possible charges before the special prosecutor negotiated Bentley’s plea deal in April,” the Washington Examiner reported.

“Suspicion about Strange’s interaction with Bentley is widespread but unproven,” the Examiner added:

“The ethics complaint, which is likely motivated by Pate’s disdain for Strange, may go nowhere,” the Alabama Political Reporter reported on August 10:

Strange’s new position as a US senator is out of the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. But Pate has said he and his attorneys believe Strange could still be held accountable for his actions while he was still Alabama’s attorney general.

The complaints likely won’t be taken up by the commission for months, meaning that its filing on the eve of the election is probably politically motivated. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a political rival’s complaints — no matter how based in politics — spelled the end to someone’s political career. After all, State Auditor Jim Zeigler’s ethics complaints against Bentley were the ones that resulted in his resignation.

Strange also faces another ethics complaint filed by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill with the Alabama Ethics Commission for violation of Alabama campaign finance laws.

Like the Pate complaint, the Ethics Commission is not expected to consider the Secretary of State’s complaint until well after the September 26 runoff election, and most likely after the December 12 general election.