Ethics panel finds probable cause gov broke law

The closures came hours after Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency for Alabama, as numerous storms are tracking to cover a majority of the state.

The commission found probable cause at the time that then-governor Guy Hunt violated ethics law by using state aircraft on preaching trips in which he received thousands of dollars in offerings.

The Alabama Ethics Commission entered its eighth hour of testimony and deliberation Wednesday evening over allegations that Gov. Robert Bentley's relationship with a staffer violated ethics laws.

The commission found Bentley guilty of using state resources for personal use, improperly loaning his campaign money, improperly paying an employee (Rebekah Caldwell Mason), and violation of campaign laws.

Each of the four violations is a Class B felony, carrying a prison sentence between two and 20 years, and a fine of up to $20,000 per count.

The Alabama Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to refer the matter to the district attorney's office for possible prosecution.

Collier's allegations formed the basis of the impeachment drive against Bentley in the House. In February, newly appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall appointed a special prosecutor to oversee another active criminal investigation into Bentley within the Attorney General's Office.

Bentley ordered the State Emergency Operations Center in Clanton activated to level three.

The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings next week on impeachment articles filed against Bentley.

Ross Garber, the lawyer representing Bentley in the impeachment investigation, has urged lawmakers to be cautious, saying only the most egregious conduct merits removal. Bentley has acknowledged making personal mistakes but maintained he did nothing wrong.

Under commission procedures, Bentley can offer his own witnesses.

In a release issued after Wednesday's finding, the Ethics Commission reported examining 33,000 pages of documents and interviewing 45 witnesses over the past year.

The meeting agenda said the body planned to "discuss matters relating to the character and reputation of certain public officials or employees as well as matters covered by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act". They remained in executive session until about 7 p.m. Mason resigned last year, the same year Dianne Bentley, the governor's wife of 50 years, saw her divorce made final.

Rep. Jim Hill (R- Moody), who serves as the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Associated Press that Sharman was simply doing his job.

Announcing its conclusion of probable cause, the ethics commission did not provide further details about Bentley's activities, citing the ongoing inquiry.

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