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Tangled Ethical Web for New Senator from Alabama

Luther Strange, America’s newest U.S. Senator, arrives in Washington as critics say he totes ethical baggage from the man who appointed him.

That man, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, has been beset for more than a year by investigations and lawsuits that arose from his admittedly “inappropriate” and possibly sexual relationship with a top aide, Rebekah Mason. When legislators opened an impeachment inquiry into whether Bentley misused state funds to either enable or hide that relationship, the state’s attorney general asked them to put their efforts on hold because, he said, they interfered with an unspecified, ongoing investigation. The legislators complied.

The state attorney general who put a hold on impeachment was Luther Strange.

Last week, Bentley appointed Strange to the U.S. Senate seat relinquished by Jeff Sessions, the new U.S. Attorney General.

That allowed Bentley to appoint a new state attorney general – former Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall – who inherits whatever mysterious investigation Strange claimed was ongoing.

So Bentley gets to appoint the man whose office may be investigating him and Strange gets the Senate seat he long has publicly coveted.

Strange now says his former office’s “investigation” may not involve Bentley at all.

And critics are raising a cacophony.

Almost immediately upon then-President-Elect Trump’s announcement that he would nominate Sessions for U.S. Attorney General, Strange had announced that he would run for the office in 2018 regardless of who Bentley appointed in the interim. But he had refused to rule out accepting the appointment himself.

That prompted severe criticism from the media and others, including outspoken State Auditor Jim Zeigler.

"Pray for anybody but Luther Strange," Zeigler said recently. "The reason? If Strange is appointed, then Bentley gets to single-handedly name a new state attorney general who can 'handle' the investigations of Bentley and Rebekah Mason. If you think Bentley has been bad the last two years, just wait to see the next two with him having his own attorney general.”

Bentley interviewed 20 candidates, all Republicans.

But when he chose Strange, all Hades broke loose in state media.

John Archibald, of Al.Com/the Birmingham News, called Bentley’s appointment of Strange “calculating and abusive to the people and the integrity of the state of Alabama.”

Archibald wrote that Strange’s “ambition overwhelmed his ethics.”

“His desire to be senator was as consuming as Bentley's desire for Rebekah Mason. It took him and turned him and made him a senator, with a giant footnote that will follow him forever.”

State Rep. Ed Henry, who spearheaded the drive to impeach Bentley, told the media the appointment “just reeks of conspiracy and collusion.”

Brad Moody, a former political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery and long-time expert on Alabama politics, believes criticism of Bentley’s appointment is justified.

“If Strange did not have an investigation going on about whether Bentley should be impeached, he certainly left the impression that he did, and the public, the media and the legislature seemed to believe he did,” Moody said.

“Appearances count, and the appearance would have been bad under any circumstances, but in Alabama and with this current governor and his current situation, the appearances are awful."

Some officials, including Republican secretary of state John Merrill, have publicly defended Strange, cautioning critics against assuming that investigations of Bentley will cease as a result of the appointment.

Strange’s now-former office has conducted public-corruption investigations without his guidance before. When Alabama’s then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard was charged with bribery-related offenses, Strange recused himself – and his underlings secured Hubbard’s conviction on 12 felony counts.

“Before this controversy, I didn’t question the integrity of Luther Strange; now a lot of my callers are doing so,” said Sean Sullivan, a respected, non-ideological radio host in Mobile. “Most of us thought he was at least a competent attorney general for the state.”

The new attorney general, Marshall, told Alabama media that Bentley never mentioned the investigation into him. As of Monday, he said, he didn't even know if there was an active investigation into the governor. 

Marshall said he will meet Tuesday with his staff. If they tell him there is an ongoing investigation of Bentley, he pledged to recuse himself.

Bentley’s support within his party and in the legislature is almost non-existent. Should the attorney general’s office signal a cessation of its investigation into Bentley, the legislature would almost surely resume its impeachment efforts.

Next year, Strange will face re-election. So decimated is Alabama’s Democratic Party that Strange’s challenge is likely to come not from any Democrat, but from fellow Republicans.

Moody, the retired politics professor, said he believes Strange will survive any challenges. “He will be a senator more in the Richard Shelby mode than the Jeff Sessions mode – that is, a somewhat conventional Southern Republican who knows which political buttons to push and who pushes them wisely and strategically,” Moody said.

“I also assume he will be easily re-elected for the same reasons Shelby always has been re-elected,” he continued. “He will have a corner on most of the money, he will not do anything to antagonize the Trump/Tea Party elements of the Republican Party, and he will have the support of the business community in Alabama and nationally.”

Strange does not yet have a press secretary for his Senate office, and he did not reply to requests for comment sent to his personal e-addresses.