Last week, Dianne Bentley filed for divorce from her husband of 50 years, Robert Bentley, who has served as the Republican governor of Alabama since 2011. While Dianne Bentley’s initial petition refers to “an irretrievable breakdown” of her marriage, several Alabama media outlets—along with many local political insiders—have put forth a much more specific explanation: Dianne Bentley came to believe that her husband had an ongoing affair with a female staffer many decades his junior. No one involved—not the wife, the husband, or the alleged paramour—have attempted to refute the allegations.
The question of whether or not Robert Bentley—an abortion-limiting, anti-gay marriage, “family values” Republican—had an affair with a state employee has become so central to coverage of his divorce that it quickly floated up to AL.com (the umbrella website for several of the state’s largest daily papers), which published a story about the existence of the rumor on Tuesday afternoon.
It’s unclear exactly who Donald Watkins is, besides someone who appears to be well-sourced in Alabama political gossip. Though AL.com identifies him as an attorney in Atlanta, his Facebook page lists him as the CEO of a Birmingham-based waste management company. He also seems to run a sort of amateur news operation on his Facebook page, and on the morning of August 29, he published a post there titled “Alabama Media Gives Bentley A Pass On His Secret Love Affair,” in which he made a series of allegations against Bentley with a promise of more to come:
Bentley is having a love affair with a well-known married paramour. We will be publishing articles about this paramour soon. We have an investigative news team looking into the details of this ongoing affair. The results thus far are mind-blowing and far-reaching.
Our future articles will: (a) identify the Governor’s paramour, (b) detail how the romance started, (c) expose who knew about the secret love affair inside of Bentley’s inner circle, and when they knew it, (d) describe the use of taxpayers’ dollars to provide the breathtaking and scenic ambience for the romance between the Governor and his paramour, and (f) disclose the real reason why a state trooper/bodyguard assigned to the Governor was paid nearly one million dollars in base salary and overtime pay and given a questionable promotion to facilitate and hid Bentley’s secret love affair.
Watkins has yet to follow through on any of those threats, but, in the meantime, he’s not the only local gossip writing about Bentley’s alleged affair. One of the “other blogs” presumably referenced by AL.com is Legal Schnauzer, run by a longtime gadfly named Roger Shuler, who was profiled in the New York Times in January 2014 for being, at the time, the only journalist imprisoned in the Western hemisphere. (He was arrested “on a contempt charge in connection with a defamation lawsuit filed by the son of a former governor.”)
Shuler published a post about Bentley’s alleged affair on August 31, and in it he names the supposed mistress, an advisor to the governor who began working for him a few years ago. (We sent requests for comment to several of the woman’s email addresses but did not hear back.) Further, Shuler, attributing his information to several “sources,” says that Bentley’s political capital has been severely diminished by the rumors regarding his infidelity:
Their affair became so widely known that it diluted any moral authority the governor might have had. “He’s been impotent as governor for at least the last six months,” one source told Legal Schnauzer. “People have been going into his office and saying, ‘Do what I want or I’m going to play the girlfriend card.’ People have been running all over him.”
Shuler also writes about the times that the staffer has flown with Bentley on the governor’s plane (via publicly available logs). He presents this as evidence of their affair, but an advisor riding along with a traveling politician is rather ordinary. The flight logs and other purported evidence were examined by John Archibald, an Alabama Media Group columnist who filed a column, also on August 31, headlined, “Reports claim Gov. Robert Bentley had an affair: What do we know?”
The answer, Archibald writes, is nothing conclusive:
I wish I could tell you the dirty details of a sordid gubernatorial affair.
That would be explosive.
Or I wish I could tell you all the details of a gubernatorial affair have simply been invented by the dirty tricks of powerful Alabamians who want to discredit the governor to hold him political hostage.
That would be explosive, too.
Though Archibald’s column exists to say that he doesn’t know if the rumors are true, he nonetheless takes the surprising step of acknowledging that the rumors have been going around Alabama political circles for some time, writing that “Montgomery has buzzed with rumors of the relationship for ages”:
I do know there is plenty of smoke. Montgomery has buzzed with rumors of the relationship for ages, and state airplane logs – I have long looked at those things – show the governor traveled with his female staff adviser often.
Where there is smoke there is fire, right? Right. You just don’t know what is burning until you find a way to see through it.
Archibald may not know if there’s fire, but the smoke has spread beyond Bentley and his rumored mistress to at least one other state official.
According to Shuler’s post on Legal Schnauzer, the alleged affair between Bentley and his advisor was “facilitated” by a state trooper. Shuler doesn’t name the trooper, but it is not the first time that Bentley has been accused of improprieties involving his state protection detail.
Another source of suspicion, for muckrakers and citizens alike, is that court records regarding the Bentleys’ divorce were ordered to be sealed by a circuit court judge who was appointed to the bench by Bentley himself in 2011. A joint motion filed by both parties argued that because Bentley is governor, “it would be in the parties’ best interest that the public not be able to access the record in this divorce action.”
That the Bentleys are making sure they can the suppress details of their divorce is not a surprise—they had already been doing it for months. According to documents filed by Dianne Bentley, the two have been separated since January—things appear to have been so bad that the First Lady had to be convinced to attend Bentley’s inauguration on January 19—but as AL.com notes, the two have “gone to great lengths to hide [that] fact.” For instance, on July 24, more than seven months after their separation, both Robert and Dianne used their Twitter accounts to wish each other a happy anniversary, with Dianne writing, “God has blessed us w/ 50 years of marriage.”
Perhaps the one thing doing the most to keep this story alive is that Bentley’s office will neither confirm nor deny that he had an extramarital affair with an advisor. In their story about the existence of the rumors, AL.com stated that “Gov. Bentley’s office did not respond to several requests for comments on the allegations.”
The advisor did not respond to a request for comment sent to three different email addresses. Gawker emailed Bentley’s office on Tuesday afternoon, but we have yet to receive comment back. If Robert Bentley didn’t have an affair, he certainly seems fine with people thinking that he did.
If you know anything about the circumstances regarding Bentley’s divorce, feel free to email me.
[image via AP]