State Auditor Jim Zeigler

State auditor Jim Zeigler shared the story of the downfall of former Gov. Robert Bentley with the Lake City Civitans during a visit to Guntersville this week. 

State auditor Jim Zeigler considers himself a self-appointed "watch dog" for shenanigans in Montgomery, even though that's not an official role of his office. 

He was the very first person to file an ethics complaint against former Gov. Robert Bentley. That was done before Zeigler even became auditor. That complaint ultimately led to Bentley resigning from office. 

Zeigler has a down-home, folksy style reminiscent of the late comedian Jerry Clower. He visited Marshall County this week and spoke to the Lake City Civitans, where he shared the story of his involvement in Gov. Bentley's downfall. 

Zeigler loves local color anytime he visits a town. Civitan Grover Williams was his tour guide around Guntersville. One of their stops was the Whole Backstage. 

"You have a wonderful show coming up, one of my favorites, The Will Rogers Follies," Zeigler said. "I'm going to try to get back up and see it. I love that Rogers' song, 'I never met a man I didn't like.' Will Rogers never met Robert Bentley."

Before he took office as auditor, Zeigler said, he began to hear about things going on in the governor's office. He learned what he could and filed the ethics complaint. 

"I took that on as a citizen, as a taxpayer, not as state auditor," Zeigler said. He said the state auditor's job is primarily keeping inventory of the property of 170-plus state agencies. 

"I filed the complaint, I tried to stay on top of it to make sure it didn't get lost in a desk drawer somewhere and 13 months later, Bentley resigned," Zeigler said. 

He said the episode "gave the state a black eye and I hope we don't go through that again."

The allegations, of course, were that Bentley had an inappropriate relationship with Rebekah Mason, his senior advisor.

"The good news in all of that was the system worked," Zeigler said. "We got rid of a rogue governor."

Zeigler said Bentley's door was "heavily guarded" during the time both he and Bentley were in the Capitol. 

"I had an open door policy and I would see his entourage coming and going," Zeigler said. "He never came in my office and I was never asked to come in his, even though they were only about 50 yards apart."

He said he was working in Mobile one day when Gov. Bentley did stop by his office. 

"My assistant Hope called and said he'd come by," Zeigler said. "The peaches were in and he had been through Chilton County. He stopped by to bring me a basket of peaches. When Hope told him I wasn't there, he turned around and left and he didn't even leave the peaches. I was in Huntsville a short time after that and I stopped myself and got some peaches in Chilton County on the way home. Everyone in my office still got a peach."

When Gov. Bentley resigned, Zeigler said, it triggered an audit of the property in the state's 3 governor's mansions.

"Did you know we have 3 governor's mansions?" he asked. "There's the governor's mansion, the Blount governor's mansion and the Ft. Morgan governor's mansion."

When Gov. Bentley and his wife divorced, Zeigler said, she got the couple's beach house at Gulf Shores.

"Gov. Bentley diverted $1.8 million of our BP oil spill settlement money to refurbish the governor's mansion at Ft. Morgan," Zeigler said. "He did that so he and his senior advisor would have a place at the beach to have high level policy meetings."

When the time came for the inventory audit to be done at the beach mansion, Zeigler said he decided to personally go. 

"That's not something an auditor would normally do, but I just wanted to see it," he said. 

When he got there, he said, a large media group had gathered by the fence. Security was not letting them on the property. Zeigler and a staffer went to work and they determined all the state property was indeed there. 

"We actually got 11 extra items that were not on the state inventory," Zeigler said. "I added them to the state inventory."

There was nothing of a romantic nature, he said. The only items he really recalled were a pair of beach chairs.

The driveway was newly resurfaced. Zeigler noticed something on it so he walked over to check it out.

Scrawled in the pavement were the words "Robert Bentley 2016."

"It looked like something a teenager would do," Zeigler said. 

When he emerged from the audit, the assembled media asked him questions. 

"Someone said, 'Well, how does it look?'" Zeigler said. "I said, 'It looks like a million bucks.' I thought that was funny, given that it cost the taxpayers $1.8 million in BP money. I don't think anyone else got it."

He shared one more story from the Bentley era. Zeigler's first inauguration was Bentley's 2nd inauguration. 

Word came down that the governor's office was canceling the traditional inaugural prayer service.

"As a private citizen, I sponsored the prayer service myself," Zeigler said. "As soon as they announced they were cancelling it, I announced I was holding it. It made them mad."

They asked him who authorized it. Zeigler replied, "The first amendment of the Constitution of the United States."

He was asked who in the state of Alabama authorized it. Zeigler replied, "God."

The minister he got to officiate it at the prayer service was the one who would have been at the original state service. 

"I think that made them madder," he said. "But we had a wonderful prayer service."

On his very first day in office, Zeigler said, while he was still trying to get the keys to the office and find out where the bathroom was, a staffer came to him and said "We've got a problem."

The problem was that the official portraits of former Gov. George Wallace and his wife, former Gov. Lurleen Wallace, had been removed from the Capitol rotunda and placed by a seldom-used door near the Secretary of State's office. 

Zeigler did a little research and found that a joint resolution passed by the legislature in 1993 had authorized the portraits to hang in the rotunda in perpetuity. George Wallace is Alabama's only 4-term governor. Lurleen was the state's first female governor.

Zeigler said he drafted a letter to the governor's office staffer who moved the portraits that they needed to be returned. That man ended up getting fired. He drafted another letter to another staffer and he was fired too. 

"I drafted a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley and you know what happened to him," he said. "I'm 3 of 3 on these letters. Who do you want me to draft the next one to?"

He later said he was actually 4 of 4 since he'd also drafted one to legislator Mike Hubbard, who was later found guilty of ethics violations. 

Zeigler said when he ran for auditor, he added the platform of being a "watch man" for the people. It's not an official duty of his office. He's been asked who gave him that authority and his answers have been the same as those concering the prayer breakfast: the Constitution and God.

He said he thinks being a watch man serves as a deterrent for someone who might come to Montgomery and try to do wrong. 

He said his office actually has very little authority other than keeping inventory of state property. When property is determined to be missing, he does not have the authority to hold accountable the person who was in charge of the property.

"I am to report the missing property to the Attorney General," Zeigler said. "We went back and looked and as near as we can tell, no one has ever been prosecuted by the Attorney General for missing property. We went back to the terms of Luther Strange and Troy King."

He said the Mississippi state auditor has much broader powers to hold people accountable for missing state property. 

"Thank God for Mississippi," he said. 

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