MONTGOMERY – While Luther Strange was in Washington, D.C., Thursday becoming the state’s next U.S. senator, several members of the Alabama Legislature, including Republicans, questioned the appointment.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was one of 20 candidates Gov. Robert Bentley interviewed as a possible replacement for Jeff Sessions, who is now the nation's new attorney general.
“There were several qualified candidates,” Orr said. “I’m afraid this appointment is going to have a cloud over it, and we’ve had enough clouds in the last two years.”
Bentley announced the appointment of Strange on Thursday morning just prior to Strange hopping a plane to Washington, D.C. It came two months after Strange, then the state attorney general, asked an Alabama House committee to pause an impeachment probe of Bentley, who was accused last year of having an affair with a onetime top political adviser. Bentley has denied any wrongdoing.
Strange said at the time that his office was doing "related work." On Thursday, he said his office never said it was investigating the governor.
Bill Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said Strange is qualified for the job. Sessions was also state attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator.
But Stewart said he’d like more information about the “related work” by Strange’s office.
“A fuller explanation would make me more comfortable with Strange entering into this prestigious office he’s been appointed,” Stewart said.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was on a list of six finalists for the appointment. He said the issue of whether the pick represents a conflict of interest depends largely on who Bentley chooses to replace Strange as state attorney general.
"I think it’s awkward," Marsh said. "What can I say? It is what it is.
“... It creates a domino effect,” Marsh said about the appointment. “I guess the next question is who’s going to be the attorney general? I can’t say whether it’s a conflict since I don’t know who the attorney general’s going to be."
Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, who has been a loud critic of Bentley and has filed ethics complaints about former adviser Rebekah Mason’s role in Bentley's office, said he’s concerned about who Bentley appoints next.
“If it is someone who has agreed not to prosecute the ‘love guv,’ then the people of Alabama should rise up,” Morrow said. “And if they don’t, they deserve what they get.”
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Wednesday he’s had informal conversations with Bentley about being the next attorney general.
“You’d have to appoint an independent prosecutor; that’s the only way you could do it,” Ward said about how the next attorney general should handle any Bentley-related investigations. “That would be fair and transparent.”
Strange has said he will run for the U.S. Senate and he has already begun fundraising.
Marsh said he is still debating running for U.S. Senate, governor or remaining in the Alabama Senate in 2018.
Orr on Thursday said he hasn’t talked to Bentley about being the next Alabama attorney general, and as far as 2018, he’s been encouraged to run for statewide office but is focused for now on the state Senate.
Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, has said he’s considering running for the U.S. Senate seat. Asked if he thinks the Strange appointment is a conflict, Pittman said, “We’ll find out.”
“The decision has been made,” Pittman said. “I probably would have thought the governor should have made another choice just not to have brought this, to raise these concerns.”
Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, last year began the impeachment process against Bentley. On Thursday, he had strong words about the appointment.
“The optics of that are horrible,” Henry said. “It makes us all look corrupt. It looks like collusion, and I believe the people of this state deserve better government.”
House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said Strange’s request the committee pause its work came in early November, prior to Trump’s election or decision to nominate Sessions to be the next U.S. attorney general.
“I do expect that once a new (Alabama) attorney general is appointed, shortly after that we’ll meet with them and discuss where we are again, but right now we’re still honoring the request that was made,” Jones said today. “I feel like it was made in good faith.”
Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, is on the House Judiciary Committee. He said Strange and Bentley would have been better served if Strange had months ago publicly removed himself from anything to do with a Bentley investigation.
“It would have been better to stop and put to rest any speculation that a deal was made,” Black said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.