WETUMPKA, Ala. (AP) — Trailed by an unusually large crowd of reporters, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley walked the halls of an overcrowded state women's prison Thursday, trying to focus on his legislative agenda but still dogged by questions about his relationship with a former top aide.
Pressure has mounted around the governor ever since he acknowledged last week that he made inappropriate sexual remarks to his former confidante and adviser, with a few Republicans calling for his resignation or suggesting impeachment. Both possibilities seemed remote, turning the lame duck GOP governor into something of a political punching bag.
At Julia Tutwiler Prison, Bentley, who is pitching an $800 million prison construction project, said overcrowding was a major crisis facing the state, and the hoped lawmakers would focus on what was good for all of Alabama instead of what he called a personal issue.
"These are major problem in the state of Alabama. I was elected by the people of this state to help solve problems and that's what we're trying to do," Bentley told reporters when asked if the scandal affected his ability to lead.
Bentley has denied having an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who stepped down from his office on Wednesday. Former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier — a day after being fired by Bentley — accused the 73-year-old governor of having an inappropriate relationship with Mason, 44.
Collier also accused the governor of urging him to give false information about the status of a prosecutorial misconduct investigation involving the case against the speaker of the house. The governor has denied the allegations as well.
Some Republicans have urged Bentley to resign or called for the state ethics commission and law enforcement to investigate if any state resources were misused.
"There's no credibility. There's no confidence from the legislature or the people of this state in his office and his abilities," said Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican.
Henry said he was drafting articles of impeachment for lawmakers to consider. The 1901 Alabama Constitution spells out a somewhat vague process for impeachment for offenses including moral turpitude, willful neglect of duty and corruption among other things.
Bentley said Thursday he didn't do anything illegal.
"I want the people of Alabama to know there is nothing there. There is nothing illegal. There is nothing that has ever been done that would affect the people of Alabama and affect my job," Bentley said.
The governor indicated he would be issuing a fuller response later.
Several House Republicans said that the talk of impeachment was premature.
"You investigate and then take action. You don't take action and then investigate," said Republican Rep. Jack Williams.
The governor tried to plod forward this week, keeping up a string of scheduled public appearances that morphed into awkward and short-lived question and answer sessions with reporters about Mason.
The governor said Thursday that he wanted to focus on his agenda that included trying to build legislative support for an $800 million prison construction project that he believes is critical to solving the state's overcrowding problem, which has been blamed for two violent uprisings in the past few weeks
Tutwiler, built in the 1942, houses 950 female inmates in a facility originally built for 550. The prison was thrust into the spotlight in recent years because the Department of Justice accused Alabama of failing to protect female inmates from sexual harassment and abuse.
It was the allegations of improper relations in the governor's office that many reporters wanted to ask about. The heavier media attendance and a notable absence of legislators or other public officials seeking to share the limelight during the prison stop suggested Bentley would remain under fire.
Bill Stewart, the former chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said the full political impact might depend on how long the public's attention is focused on Bentley.
"He's made some grave mistakes and he's paying the political penalty," Stewart said.
Dianne Bentley, the governor's ex-wife, filed for divorce in 2015 saying their 50-year marriage had suffered an irreparable breakdown.
Recordings obtained by The Associated Press purportedly show the governor — before his divorce — professing love to someone named Rebecca or Rebekah and telling her how much he enjoyed kissing and touching her.
The admissions may have even more sting because Bentley won in 2010 and 2014 based partly on his morally upright image.
Gustavo Villanueva, a gay Birmingham man, said he thought the governor's actions were hypocritical.
"To hear that he was accused of having an affair and having a divorce kind of made me laugh about him saying gay men are ruining the sanctity of marriage and all this stuff," he said.
David Rubey said the scandal had cast on shadow on Bentley's governorship.
"It does hurt his leadership abilities because he's proven to be a liar," Rubey said. "That's a character flaw for sure, so that carries over into your work if you can't be honest with people which — obviously — he's a politician."
The governor doesn't appear to have any political allies right now, but also has no immediate reason to leave, said Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College
"Who goes to bat for Gov. Robert Bentley? Now, if legislators want to push the envelope, that might force him out, but he has nothing to lose by simply hanging in there," Davis said.
Associated Press writer Phillip Lucas in Birmingham contributed to this report.