Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s vendetta against the state trooper who divorced her sister may have spilled over into a broader retaliation against Alaska’s police with more than $2 million slashed from their budget as well as the elimination of temporary staff positions and the firing of the public safety commissioner, according to police representatives.
Law enforcement and police union officials, who requested anonymity before discussing the dispute with John McCain’s choice to be Vice President, said Palin’s fiscal 2009 budget cuts will lead to increased case loads and the possible shelving of dozens of outstanding investigations.
These officials – some of whom worked with Palin during her 21 months as governor – said Palin had become increasingly frustrated with the public safety department for refusing to fire Mike Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin’s sister Molly McCann.
The couple divorced in January 2006 and has been involved in a bitter custody dispute for more than three years.
Though Palin insists she didn’t abuse her office to settle scores with Wooten, several of her aides and her husband had repeated contacts with police officials about firing Wooten for alleged personal and professional misconduct.
On July 11, 2008, Palin fired her public safety commissioner, former Anchorage police chief Walt Monegan, who since has described how his relationship with the governor deteriorated when he refused to comply with requests from Palin’s associates to oust Wooten from the state troopers.
A state legislative investigation is now under way into whether Palin let her family’s feud with Wooten influence her official actions as governor.
Beyond those questionable contacts since she became governor in December 2006, Palin was deeply enmeshed in the dispute with Wooten before she was sworn in as governor, according to a review of documents relating to the case.
Palin filed several formal complaints against her ex-brother-in-law over the course of three years alleging he engaged in illegal behavior while on duty. But her complaints relied heavily on second-hand information, some of which was later determined to be suspect and unverifiable.
Lodging 36 accusations against Wooten in 2005 alone, Palin and her family appeared to be waging a vendetta against the trooper who was assigned to the wildlife division. Palin personally seemed obsessed with ending his career.
In a three-page, sometimes rambling e-mail dated Aug. 10, 2005, and sent to Wooten’s boss, Col. Julia Grimes, Palin said the fact that her brother-in-law continued to be employed as a trooper caused Palin, her family and the community to lose faith in the “Trooper organization.”
“My concern is that the public’s faith in the Troopers will continue to diminish as more residents express concern regarding the apparent lack of action towards a trooper whom is described by many as being a ‘ticking timebomb,’ and a ‘loose cannon,’” Palin wrote in the e-mail slugged “Trooper Integrity, Character.”
“Let me just share again with you a few of the many episodes in Wooten’s recent past that have been discussed with Wooten’s supervisors after the episodes were publicly discussed by Wooten with many in our community who are left scratching their heads regarding Wooten’s poor reflection of the Trooper mission to prevent loss of life and property as a result of illegal and unsafe acts....
“Wooten is my brother-in-law, but this information is forwarded to you objectively, and I trust it is received and considered by you objectively.”
Palin’s e-mail was sent to Grimes after Palin was interviewed by state troopers on two different occasions about previous complaints she and her family leveled against Wooten. But Palin was dissatisfied with the slow progress of the investigation and was angered that Wooten was still employed.
“Julia, as lifelong Alaskans, my family and I and concerned community members who have witnessed your employee’s actions still want to have faith in the Alaska State Troopers,” Palin wrote to Grimes. “But with recent public disclosure of abuses in the Trooper organization, and our own knowledge of Wooten’s blatant disregard for the laws he is hired to enforce, our faith is waning.”
Palin’s e-mail also indicated that Wooten had been unfaithful to her sister and noted that her family had hired private investigator Leonard Hackett to follow Wooten and interview people Wooten encountered during the course of a day to build a case against him. Wooten, 35, has been married and divorced five times.
Around March 26, 2005, Wooten “rode with his girlfriend, Mrs. Angie Johnson, home from another local bar after another night of drinking,” Palin’s e-mail said. “Mrs. Johnson was pulled over by a Trooper for suspected drunk driving.
“According to Wooten’s account for the evening, he leaned over from the passenger window and demanded the responding Trooper turn off his recorder and not cite Mrs. Johnson. She was not cited for DUI. Wooten subsequently bragged about this incidence to others.”
Palin claimed her brother-in-law also had a serious drinking problem, routinely drove while intoxicated and was abusive toward her sister. However, on April 11, 2005, the sister, Molly McCann, told an investigating officer that Wooten was never physically abusive toward her but he was “intimidating.” The police never substantiated Palin’s claims of physical abuse.
Palin also alleged that Wooten illegally shot a cow moose, but added that her father butchered the carcass and that she and her family cooked and ate the meat. She also claimed that he used a taser on his stepson.
Alaska law enforcement officials investigated all of Palin’s accusations and concluded that 11 of Palin’s 36 allegations against her brother-in-law did violate department policy, including an admission by Wooten that he tasered his stepson, Payton, and drank beer while on duty. The department suspended Wooten for 10 days, which the union negotiated down to five.
"The record clearly indicates a serious and concentrated pattern of unacceptable and at times, illegal activity occurring over a lengthy period, which establishes a course of conduct totally at odds with the ethics of our profession," Col. Grimes wrote in March 1, 2006, letter suspending Wooten.
"This discipline is meant to be a last chance to take corrective action," Grimes wrote. "You are hereby given notice that any further occurrences of these types of behaviors or incidents will not be tolerated and will result in your termination."
John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, issued a statement noting that a majority of the claims leveled against Wooten were “unfounded or not sustained.”
Palin’s opinion of Wooten appears to have darkened only after his marriage to her sister failed. When Palin was mayor of the small town of Wasilla, she had been a character reference for Wooten when the Air Force veteran was pursuing a career in law enforcement.
In a Jan. 1, 2000, letter of reference, Palin wrote that if “America had more people with the grace and sincerity that mirrors the character of Mike Wooten...we would have a much kinder, gentler, trustworthy nation as a result.
“I have witnessed Mike’s gift of calm and kindness toward many young kids here in Wasilla,” said Palin’s Jan. 1, 2000 letter written on City of Wasilla letterhead. “I have never seen him raise his voice, nor lose patience nor become aggitated [sic] in the presence of any child. Instead, Mike consistently remains a fine role model for my own children, and other young people in Wasilla.”
Palin’s interest in – or obsession with – the Wooten case surged again after she became Alaska’s governor in December 2006 and Wooten appealed to a court for additional custody and visitation rights.
The governor allegedly broached the subject of Wooten’s continued employment as a trooper with Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, who said he tried to deflect the topic.
Since Monegan’s own dismissal on July 11, 2008. he has said he has e-mails from Palin discussing Wooten, though she doesn’t identify Wooten by name. Palin has resisted calls to publicly release the e-mails citing “executive privilege.”
On July 18, in response to news reports that alleged Monegan was fired because he resisted Palin’s calls to fire Wooten, Palin told the local CBS affiliate in Alaska that the timing of the allegation was suspicious and an attempt by her critics to interfere with her plans to build a natural gas pipeline.
However, Palin then veered off into another diatribe about Wooten.
"So suspect of the timing,” Palin told CBS. “Will come to find out it was on Sunday that Trooper Wooten refused to obey a court order after visitation with his children, he doesn't have full custody of the kids. He had visitation. He refused to turn the kids over.
“One of his sergeants had to call him and tell him, 'Trooper Wooten you have to follow the court order. You have to give the kids back.' He did that with this threat. He said, 'Get ready for the show. I'm going to bring you down.' Here he's talking to his ex-wife. The mother of these children.
“And 'I'm going to bring your family down.' And now what is it three days later, four days later? Starts to show. So it makes sense to me now, why he riled people up. Riled the union up, and they came forward today. Because we know, I know without a doubt the dismissal of Walt Monegan, the replacement of him as commissioner of Department of Public Safety has absolutely nothing to do with Trooper Wooten."
Cyr, Wooten’s union representative, held a news conference the same day and released documents that detailed the extent of Palin’s complaints against Wooten.
“Officer Wooten has asked that we release the records around that investigation so that the press can take an open and honest look at what happened and you may draw your own conclusions," Cyr said.
After Cyr released the information, Palin released a strongly worded statement:
"To allege that I, or any member of my family, requested, received or released confidential personnel information on an Alaska State Trooper, or directed disciplinary action be taken against any employee of the Department of Public Safety, is, quite simply, outrageous.
“Any information regarding personnel records came from the trooper himself. I question the timing of these false allegations. It is unfortunate, as we seek to address a growing energy crisis in this state, that this matter has been raised now,” she said.
Palin’s office then posted on the governor’s Web site two documents: a release signed by Wooten in May giving his ex-wife's attorney access to his "entire employment file including but not limited to any and all disciplinary action(s) and complaints, and personnel records," and a letter from her attorney addressed "To whom it may concern," stating that any records obtained were done through proper channels.
“The governor's office, and particularly Governor Sarah Palin, has at no time had any involvement in this litigation. All records relevant to the litigation were obtained through the standard discovery process involved in every court case, as governed by the Alaska Rules of the Court," the attorney’s letter said.
As the story behind Monegan’s July 11 dismissal picked up steam and calls for an investigation into the matter were raised, Palin’s office issued a long news release on July 22 entitled "Palin Responds to Latest Falsehoods" and disputing Monegan’s claims, some of which touched on Palin’s ability to govern properly.
“Walt has falsely accused me of making a comment to him that a draft report on troopers’ activities would somehow make my administration look bad,” Palin said. “Why would it? I would welcome further proof that my administration needs the resources we requested to get the job done.
“My administration asked for nearly $7 million more for the Department of Public Safety. However, working with the dollars that the legislature funded, I am confident that under new leadership, we will develop new public safety initiatives that are reasonable and actionable.”
Monegan alleged after his termination that, as governor, Palin was not supportive of Alaskan state troopers and had proposed slashing the troopers’ annual budget by about $2.5 million while stating publicly in July “Alaskans deserve a fully staffed trooper force.”
Police union official Cyr said he believes Monegan’s dismissal resulted from both his refusal to fire Wooten and the clash over the budget for the troopers.
"Her basic mission is to cut the basic cost of government," Cyr told the Anchorage Daily News in a July 13 interview. "I understand that, but when you do that with public safety, that means that people are less safe in their homes."
In response to claims by other troopers that she waged a campaign to get her former brother-in-law fired, Palin criticized them saying in August: "If that's pressure, then (after) years in law enforcement, how do they do their job if that's perceived as pressure?"
Palin set Sept. 15 as the date for the state troopers to justify their need for money and staff in the fiscal year 2009 budget, but it’s unclear how her new responsibilities on the Republican ticket may affect her work on state business.
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This story was published on September 3, 2008.