BIRMINGHAM, AL --Two weeks after admitting to sexually charged remarks to a female aide, embattled Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley faces a call for his impeachment from a bipartisan group of lawmakers who said the public has lost confidence in the Republican governor.
Although the impeachment effort is considered a longshot in the legislative session that ends next month, it is a sign of the governor's growing political troubles in the wake of the scandal.
"We are looking at this governor who has essentially betrayed the trust of the people of Alabama through actions and lies that have caused us to have some doubt about his leadership," Rep. Ed Henry said during a news conference at the Alabama Statehouse.
Henry introduced the five-page articles of impeachment Tuesday, accusing Bentley of moral turpitude, willful neglect of duty, corruption and incompetence.
Bentley lashed out at the effort Tuesday, saying he would vigorously defend himself.
"Today's press conference is nothing more than political grandstanding intended to grab headlines and take the focus away from the important issues the Legislature still has to address before the end of the session," Bentley said in a statement.
Bentley last month admitted making inappropriate remarks to his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who has since resigned. The admission came after former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, a day after being fired by Bentley, accused the governor of having an affair with Mason and of interfering with law enforcement investigations. Bentley has denied both accusations.
Yet the scandal has engulfed Bentley, a mild-mannered dermatologist and former Baptist deacon whose political ascendency was based partly on his morally upright, honest reputation.
Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Alabama Legislature are not pushing the impeachment effort. The resolution was sent to the House Rules Committee, where it will likely linger for the 11 meeting days remaining in the legislative session without a floor vote.
House Rules Committee Chairman Mac McCutcheon said the committee would first establish an investigating commission to vet the articles of impeachment and determine whether grounds exist for impeachment.
Some Alabama lawmakers quickly dismissed the impeachment effort as premature.
"I'm not in the mood to impeach someone over personal issues. Unless someone can show us a reason - that someone has misused their office or misused tax dollars - and I haven't seen that," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, the GOP's leader in the chamber.
Republican Rep. Jack Williams said Tuesday that he can't support an impeachment process "wrought with stoked-up emotion." Williams said the governor deserves due process as the state Ethics Commission conducts its investigation.
"It's the wrong day and the wrong way," Williams said.
Alabama lawmakers have never previously tried to impeach a sitting governor. The state constitution spells out a vague but seldom-used procedure for impeachment. If the House of Representatives approves the impeachment resolution, a trial would be held in the Alabama Senate.
But the impeachment effort is another indication of the shift in the fortunes of a governor who has banked on his scrupulous character.
"There is a crisis of confidence, and this needs to be resolved," Republican Rep. Mike Ball 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 her and touching her breasts.
"I love you so much; I worry about loving you so much," Bentley says on the call.
The governor in a news conference last month said he did not have a "physical affair" with Mason and that there was no "sexual activity."
Henry said the recordings cast doubt on Bentley's description and undermine the governor's credibility on that and other issues.
The impeachment articles lay out few specifics of the charges against the governor but cite an "inappropriate relationship" with Mason and suspicions that he might have inappropriately used his office resources to conceal or advance the relationship. The impeachment articles also cite a lack of transparency in how Mason was paid. Mason was not on payroll, but was paid by Bentley's campaign.
Bentley has a habit of saying in speeches how much he loves the people of his state. Henry said voters do not reciprocate the affection right now.
"If he truly loves the people of this state, he'll step down," Henry said.