You have to admire the Republican chutzpah. Still confronting a national scandal about packing the Justice Department with “loyal Bushies,” they pick a vice presidential candidate who – in her two executive jobs in Alaska – ousted top law-enforcement officials because they were insufficiently loyal or not malleable enough.
One of those firings has put Gov. Sarah Palin at the center of an ongoing legislative investigation that presumably will require her to testify about whether she was behind efforts by her husband and senior staff to pressure the state’s public safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law from the state troopers.
When the commissioner, former Anchorage police chief Walter Monegan, refused to go along, he was summarily ousted by Palin without much explanation.
Unless the Republicans can figure out a way to block Palin’s sworn deposition, she will have to either admit that she used her political influence to wage a family vendetta or she must face the risk that her continued denials of involvement will be contradicted by her own staff or by some other evidence.
However, if Palin admits that she did use her government office to punish a personal enemy – or that she fired the public safety commissioner because he refused to join in her family feud – the Republicans may have trouble continuing to sell Palin as a reform-minded governor.
Instead, Palin would appear to fit more neatly with Bush administration operatives who engineered the firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006 and who employed ideological litmus tests in deciding who to hire for career jobs at the Justice Department.
As Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, famously put it: the motive for purging the federal prosecutors was to eliminate those who were deemed not “loyal Bushies.”
Some of the U.S. Attorneys, such as New Mexico’s David Iglesias, had balked at political pressure before Election 2006 to bring what the prosecutors considered flimsy voter-fraud cases against prominent Democrats.
Now it appears that Sarah Palin shares the Bush administration's view about putting cronies in key law-enforcement jobs, making hers act like “loyal Palinistas.” As mayor of the tiny town of Wasilla and as governor of Alaska, she fired two top law-enforcement officials when they didn’t show sufficient loyalty or obedience to her.
In 1996, after winning the election to be mayor of Wasilla then with a population of about 5,000, Palin sought to oust six department heads because they had signed a letter supporting the previous mayor, their old boss. Palin ultimately fired two of them, including the police chief.
Wasilla’s ousted police chief, Irl Stambaugh, sued Palin in 1997 for alleged contract violation, wrongful termination and gender discrimination The police chief claimed Palin fired him not for cause but for being disloyal and because he was a man whose size – 6 feet and 200 pounds – intimidated her.
However, a federal judge dismissed Stambaugh’s lawsuit.
So, having escaped any serious damage for punishing Wasilla’s police chief for a supposed lack of political loyalty, Palin had little reason not to throw her weight around when she became Alaska’s governor in December 2006.
By then, Palin was deeply involved in her family’s vendetta against her sister’s ex-husband, trooper Mike Wooten. Through complaints to his superiors, Palin already had helped engineer Wooten’s five-day suspension from the state police earlier in 2006 for various examples of personal misconduct.
In January 2007, a month into Palin’s term, her husband, Todd, invited Palin’s new public safety commissioner Monegan to the governor’s office, where Todd Palin urged Monegan to reopen the Wooten case. After checking on it, Monegan informed Todd Palin that he couldn’t do anything because the case was closed.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Monegan said that a few days later, the governor also called him about the Wooten matter and he gave her the same answer. Monegan said Gov. Palin brought the issue up again in a February 2007 meeting at the state capitol, prompting his warning that she should back off.
However, Monegan said Gov. Palin kept bringing the issue up indirectly through e-mails, such as comparing another bad trooper to “my former brother-in-law, or that trooper I used to be related to.”
Monegan also began getting telephone calls from Palin’s aides about trooper Wooten, including from then-chief of staff Mike Tibbles; Commissioner Annette Kreitzer of the Department of Administration; and Attorney General Talis Colberg.
Colberg acknowledged making the call, after an inquiry from Todd Palin about “the process” for handling a threatening trooper, and then relaying back the response from Monegan that the issue had been handled and nothing more could be done.
Monegan also told the Post that he warned each caller about the risk of exposing the state to legal liability if Wooten filed a lawsuit.
However, Todd Palin continued collecting evidence against Wooten and lobbying for his dismissal. The governor’s husband acknowledged giving Wooten’s boss, Col. Audie Holloway, photos of Wooten driving a snowmobile while he was out of work on a worker’s compensation claim.
Alaska’s Deputy Attorney General Michael Barnhill told the Post that a member of the governor’s staff, personnel director Diane Kiesel, also made at least one call to Col. Holloway about the snowmobile incident. [Washington Post, Aug. 31, 2008]
On July 11, 2008, Palin abruptly fired Monegan, saying only that she wanted to take the public safety department in a different direction.
Monegan then went public with his account of the mounting campaign against Wooten from the governor’s family and staff. Monegan told the Anchorage Daily News that Todd Palin showed him the work of a private investigator, who had been hired by the family to dig into Wooten’s life and who was accusing the trooper of various misdeeds, such as drunk driving and child abuse.
Though Palin insisted she wasn’t involved in the pressure campaign, a review by the Attorney General’s office found that half a dozen state officials had made about two dozen phone calls regarding Wooten.
A tape recording of one conversation – between Palin’s chief of boards and commissions Frank Bailey and police Lt. Rodney Dial in February 2008 – revealed Bailey saying, “Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, ‘Why on earth ... is this guy still representing the department?’”
On Aug. 2, the state legislature launched its own investigation into whether Palin “used her public office to settle a private score.” A bipartisan panel appointed special prosecutor Steve Branchflower to investigate and report back in a few months.
After Palin learned of Branchflower’s appointment, she questioned whether the investigation would be fair and objected to a comment from Democratic state Sen. Hollis French about the possibility that the case might lead to the governor’s impeachment.
Palin’s spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said, "Publicly elevating this to 'impeachment' raises doubts as to how fair a process some senators may intend for this to be." [Anchorage Daily News, Aug. 2, 2008]
However, with Palin now Sen. John McCain’s choice to be the next Vice President of the United States – and with much of the national news media hailing McCain’s “bold” choice of a fellow “maverick” and “reformer” – it’s unclear how far the state investigation will be allowed to go.
Still, there is a risk to McCain’s campaign that a deposition will either draw out from Palin an admission that she abused her office to pursue a personal vendetta or she will put herself at risk of having a sworn statement contradicted by others.
For a Republican Party that impeached – but couldn’t ultimately remove – President Bill Clinton for lying about a sex act, there might be some discomfort about having to justify any false statements by Sarah Palin.
But the Bush administration has demonstrated how well it knows how to frustrate investigations into Republican wrongdoing. For seven years, the administration has deployed its expansive claims of executive privilege and other obstructive tactics to thwart all kinds of fact-finding, including the probe into the firing of the nine U.S. Attorneys.
Presumably, a similar cloak of protection will now descend around Sarah Palin’s shoulders.
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This story was published on September 2, 2008.