MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A year after Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's sexually charged phone calls with a younger female aide set off tabloid-like speculation in the Bible-belt state, the state Ethics Commission is preparing to announce whether it believes he broke the law.
If the commission recommends that prosecutors pursue criminal charges of misusing state resources, the Legislature may try to impeach a governor for the first time in Alabama history.
The scandal has tarnished the 74-year-old Baptist deacon, a mild-mannered dermatologist who attracted voters to his longshot Republican primary campaign in 2010 by promising not to accept a salary.
"I made a mistake," Bentley said in a public apology to his family and state. He's denied breaking any laws and told The Associated Press it wasn't a physical affair, because they didn't have intercourse.
Now divorced from wife Dianne and living alone in the governor's mansion, he's determined to serve out his second term despite losing popularity.
"The thing I am most interested in is serving the people of Alabama, and I am just going to work hard to do the best job that I can possibly do," Bentley said recently. "We'll see how things turn out. I think they are going to be fine."
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said lawmakers will decide on impeachment after the commission shares its findings in April, when the legislative session resumes. "I think that will be a huge determining factor on the timeline on when we may, or may not, address impeachment on the House floor," he said.
House Republicans say internal polls show less than 40 percent of GOP voters favor Bentley in the solidly red state.
Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican who's spearheaded impeachment efforts, believes it's time to act.
"The mood inside the House has finally grown to a breaking point," he told the AP. "There is so much pressure from the outside that we act, that a large majority of members are ready to vote."
State Auditor Jim Zeigler accused Bentley of using state resources to pursue an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a former television anchor who became so powerful, she was known as Alabama's "de facto governor."
The governor's lawyer, former federal prosecutor Bill Athanas, rejected the accusation.
"The evidence demonstrates the exact opposite: that, in addition to forgoing over $750,000 in salary earned during his service, the Governor has consistently worked to safeguard public funds and otherwise act in the best interests of the State," Athanas wrote via email to the AP.
Both couples attended the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa before Bentley hired Rebekah as his campaign spokeswoman and her husband, Jon, as his director of faith-based and volunteer initiatives. Some staffers complained she became the only voice in Bentley's ear as he sought political footing by deciding to take down Confederate flags and push to build more prisons.
Mobile devices exposed the rift in the Bentleys' 50-year marriage, according to an ex-administration official who provided recordings to the AP on condition of anonymity to avoid angering politically powerful former associates.
Bentley's wife became suspicious when text messages and emails sent from his phone also appeared on a tablet at home. Then, while she went for a walk, her husband's side of a furtive conversation with Mason was recorded by another phone in the first couple's beach house, the official said.
The recording leaked after the divorce became final, enabling all of Alabama to hear their governor saying "I worry about loving you so much."
And this: "You know what, when I stand behind you and I put my arms around you and I put my hands on your breasts and I put my hands on you and just pull you in really close. I love that, too."
Rebekah Mason, who would not comment to the AP for this story, remains in Bentley's orbit. Her husband still works for him. Both were his guests at President Trump's inauguration.
The ethics commission would make its recommendation to Bentley's replacement for Attorney General Luther Strange, whom Bentley appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Sen. Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general.
Strange raised eyebrows last year by asking the House impeachment committee to halt its investigation, saying his office was doing related work. His successor turned that investigation over to an independent prosecutor to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Bentley also faces lawsuits by former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, and his bodyguard, Ray Lewis, who say they were forced out to cast doubt on their credibility because they knew about the relationship.
"Robert Bentley is not an evil man. At one point in public life, I truly believe his heart was good. But power, and lust, both corrupt. Robert Bentley is now a corrupt and feckless man, who should be removed from office so he can do no harm to the people of Alabama," said Lewis' lawyer, John Saxon.
Bentley lawyer Ross Garber urges caution, saying "governors don't get impeached for the kinds of issues we're talking about here."
"Before the legislature may even consider impeachment, they need to identify potentially impeachable conduct and afford the Governor due process," Garber said. "We are very, very far from that point."