MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Sen. Luther Strange got his appointment to Congress earlier this year from a governor who later resigned under the cloud of an ethics scandal.
The appointment by then-Gov. Robert Bentley gave Strange the advantage of incumbency in the race to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate. It also became his chief liability since Strange, as state attorney general, oversaw the investigation of Bentley.
"He's got too many Bentley cooties on him. He can't wash them off," said Kevin Spriggs, a Baldwin County voter.
The sex-tainted scandal that ended Bentley's political career is dragging into the U.S. Senate race as rivals try to capitalize on what they see as Strange's Achilles heel.
"Luther Strange, Mr. Corruption himself," Dr. Randy Brinson, a Montgomery doctor, who is running in the crowded GOP field, said during a recent press conference. Brinson is the former head of the state Christian Coalition.
Strange calls the criticisms unmerited and said he opened the investigation that eventually led to Bentley resigning and taking a plea deal.
"I asked the team I put together to follow the truth wherever it led. They did. So the governor resigned," Strange told The Associated Press
Bentley, a mild-manner dermatologist, spent the last year bogged down in an unlikely sex-tainted scandal after recordings surfaced of him making provocative comments to a close female aide. Legislators launched an impeachment probe over whether state resources were misused and complaints were filed to the state ethics commission.
Strange said he opened an investigation into what he called the "dueling allegations" between Bentley and his former law enforcement secretary Spencer Collier, who exposed Bentley's relationship. Bentley accused Collier of misusing state funds. Strange's office later cleared Collier.
But some people had misgivings about Strange's dealings with Bentley.
Strange on Nov. 3 asked lawmakers to pause the impeachment investigation while his office did "related work." Strange contends it was not a favor to Bentley, but was done because there was concern the impeachment investigation could interfere with what his office was doing. Strange argues that, at that point, there was no indication that Trump would win or appoint Sessions to create a Senate opening.
"That was before the election so there was no politics even conceivable at that point," Strange said.
Strange interviewed with Bentley for the position, but Strange said the status of the investigation was not discussed.
In February, Bentley appointed Strange to Sessions' seat and said he would hold the seat until 2018. The move irked some lawmakers who revived the impeachment push. The state's new governor moved up the election to 2017 where Strange faces a crowded field of challengers including U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and state Sen. Trip Pittman.
Pittman said Strange should not have sought a favor from Bentley when his office was investigating him.
Bentley appeared to have some consternation about appointing Strange, rolling out lists of finalists and semi-finalists before finally naming Strange.
Bentley announced his resignation in April on the same day that lawmakers began impeachment hearings. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance violations in order to end the state probe. The governor told The Associated Press that he wanted to relieve himself, and the state, from the drumbeat of the scandal.
"If I had thought he would appoint some crony or friend (as attorney general) I certainly wouldn't have taken it. ... The only bad result would have been if someone came in and tried to interfere with the investigation, which they didn't," Strange said.