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Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, sitting next to an empty seat, reacts to Governor Robert Bentley not showing up after being ordered to appear before him at the state capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday May 2, 2016.
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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley responds to statements made by Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Wednesday on March 23, 2016, in Montgomery, Ala.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — If Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler had his druthers on Monday morning, he would have interviewed an empty chair.

Zeigler awaited Gov. Robert Bentley, who he had summoned to answer questions about possible use of state resources and the governor's relationship with a former female political aide. Some 60 feet away from Bentley's office in the Alabama Statehouse, Zeigler twice called for Bentley as a witness.

When Bentley didn't show Monday, Zeigler adjourned the makeshift hearing, though he said he'd never expected Bentley to appear in the first place. He now plans to seek a court order in the Montgomery County Circuit Court to compel Bentley's testimony, though he needs pro bono legal representation or a publicly supported legal fund to pay for it.

Zeigler issued the summons on April 21, citing an obscure section of state code allowing the state auditor to require testimony under oath. He requested that Bentley produce documents and answer questions about state cellphone use and travel records, among other things.

"Using state money or state facilities or state resources for personal use is problematic under the ethics law and possibly under other laws," Zeigler said. "That's what we're looking for. We're looking at using state resources for personal use."

Bentley has struggled to shake the scandal since he acknowledged in March that he made inappropriate remarks to a senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. He denies a physical affair or misuse of his office. Mason has since resigned.

The governor in April said the "appropriate legal process" for complaints is through the Alabama Ethics Commission. Zeigler has already filed complaint there.

The governor's office on Monday had no further comment.

Zeigler acknowledged the state code only enables the auditor to gather information, not act upon it. Zeigler said if Bentley were to testify, he would turn over the information to either the district attorney, Ethics Commission or House of Representatives.

Twenty-three lawmakers last week signed on to articles of impeachment against the governor. The articles will trigger a House Judiciary Committee probe whether there are grounds for impeachment. It's unclear how quickly that inquiry will proceed.

"The people of Alabama do not want to wait until 2017 to have the air cleared on the multiple problems in the Bentley administration," Zeigler said.

Zeigler, who calls himself a "resident critic of state government," has previously clashed with Bentley. The Republican auditor, who took office in 2015, gave an unusual rebuttal to Bentley's "State of the State" address in March. He also said he's never been invited into the governor's office.

"It's symptomatic of the fact that these advisers have him insulated," Zeigler said. "He doesn't hear from me, or the citizens, or anybody else without the information filtering through the governor's advisers. I tried to penetrate that wall and was unsuccessful."

Zeigler said he did not request a meeting or conversation with the governor apart from the public summons.

 

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