The impeachment investigation that led to Alabama’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s resignation, arrest and conviction Monday surfaced more than just the alleged misuse of public funds to hide his affair with a top political aide, the cringe-y texts to his paramour, and the threats lobbed towards those who stood ready to expose their tryst.
The report released Friday shed light on another controversy that dogged his tenure: his administration’s decision to close 31 driver’s license offices, many in African-American-heavy counties, prompting a national outcry over how the closures would affect voting rights in the state, which requires a photo ID to vote.
The impeachment investigation report – which was compiled by a special counsel appointed by the legislature – concluded that the driver’s license office closures were politically motivated and ordained by the aide at the center of the scandal, Rebekah Mason, as a way to pressure state legislators into getting in line in support of the governor’s funding legislation.
Former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency head Spencer Collier, who oversaw the operations of the offices, told the impeachment investigators “that Mason proposed closing multiple driver’s license offices throughout the State and asked ALEA to put together a plan,” according to the report.
“It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies,” the report continued.
The closures had a disproportionate impact the state’s “Black Belt” – a reference to its dark topsoil and its African American population – and were widely denounced given that minority communities are already less likely to have the IDs required to vote and more reliant on public transport, making travel to obtain a license difficult. Propelled by the closures, civil rights rights groups ultimately sued Alabama over its photo voter ID law in a case that it still proceeding.
Whether making it harder for black people to vote was part of Mason’s motivation in ordering the closures – or a factor in how the governor’s office handled the fallout that ensued – is subject to debate. The findings in Friday’s report suggest that, regardless, the closures were not merely an effort to save money, as initially billed, but political hardball designed to squeeze legislators at the expense of their constituents’ access to the ballot box.
“It sort of goes to the ridiculousness of the closures initially, that this was talked about not just in terms of how we can save money, but it was talked about in terms of how we can benefit ourselves politically,” said Deuel Ross, an NAACP-LDF lawyer who is working on the voter ID lawsuit. “And then it was done in such a way that obviously harmed African Americans.”