Sessions' Senate replacement raises eyebrows in Alabama

Posted at 8:51 AM, Feb 09, 2017

(CNN) -- Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, whose second term has been plagued by a sex scandal involving a former staffer, named state Attorney General Luther Strange on Thursday to succeed Sen. Jeff Sessions in the US Senate.

Sessions is due to be sworn in Thursday as US attorney general to President Donald Trump.

In promoting Strange, Bentley managed to sideline a key player in the ongoing effort to investigate -- and potentially impeach or prosecute him -- in connection with the alleged affair. Bentley has said he did nothing illegal.



The governor now gets to name Strange's replacement, an opportunity he could use to install an official less interested in pursuing a case against him. Sessions, Bentley and Strange are Republicans.

"This is truly a remarkable time in our state's history," Bentley said in a joint statement. "Alabama has surely been well represented by Sen. Sessions, and I am confident Sen. Strange will serve as a fine representative for our people. His leadership on a national level, service as a statewide elected official and long record of taking on tough federal issues are the very qualities that will make him a strong conservative senator for Alabama."

Strange, who has served as attorney general since 2011, had already been eying the Senate seat. In December, he launched a campaign for the post, and his campaign manager, Michael Joffrion, said Strange will run in 2018 to keep the seat through 2020, when Sessions' term expires.

"I am greatly honored and humbled to accept the appointment to Alabama's Senate seat vacated by Sen. Jeff Sessions," Strange said in the statement. "Sen. Sessions' commitment to public service is nearly unparalleled in Alabama history, and his departure from the Senate leaves tremendous shoes to fill. I pledge to the people of Alabama to continue the same level of leadership as Jeff Sessions in consistently fighting to protect and advance the conservative values we all care about."

Strange appointment raises eyebrows

Strange's appointment could serve as a reset button for Bentley, who has been under an impeachment investigation by lawmakers in relation to an alleged affair with former aide Rebekah Mason. Some legislators have called on the governor to resign; he has refused.

The affair came to light after Bentley's wife of 50 years filed for divorce in September 2015.

The impeachment probe by the Alabama House Judiciary Committee came to a halt in November, after Strange asked that his office be able to take over "related work." State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a Republican, said Bentley's appointment of Strange under these circumstances "stinks."

"By the attorney general vacating the office, the governor gets to single-handedly choose a lawyer to investigate him and his girlfriend," said State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a Republican. "The whole thing stinks. ... We've had real problems in state government in Alabama over the past year. It's got the potential to get much worse."

"It is outrageous. We have the potential for a Gov. Blagojevich situation," Zeigler said, referring to Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois.

In 2008, Blagojevich was charged with corruption and later impeached and removed from office after being accused of soliciting bribes for the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Blagojevich is serving a 14-year federal sentence.

Bentley has said his relationship with Mason was not physical.

Governor won't call special election

Alabama code states that in the event of a vacancy for a United States senator, the governor will "forthwith order an election to be held," so the people of Alabama may choose their next senator.

Bentley has said he doesn't want to call a special election because he'd like to save the $15 million that such an event is expected to cost. That means Strange will hold the position until the next scheduled election, in 2018.

"Instead of setting up a special election that would be held sometime this year, he wants to wait until 2018 and let that temporary appointee run in the regular-term election that is already set to be in November 2018," said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, also a Republican.

The winner of that race would serve out the remaining two years of Sessions' term. The next election would be held in 2020.