Ripping a page from George W. Bush’s playbook on obstructing investigations, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her senior aides are maneuvering to thwart an abuse-of-power investigation that Palin initially vowed to assist.
Now, rather than cooperate with an independent counsel assigned to examine whether Palin fired the state’s public safety commission because he refused to fire her ex-brother-in-law from the state troopers, Palin, her husband and seven witnesses close to Palin are resisting giving testimony.
Moreover, on Tuesday, just one day before giving her widely acclaimed speech to the Republican National Convention, Palin took the unusual step of filing an ethics complaint against herself – to move the investigation to the state personnel board whose three members are appointed by the governor.
Palin’s decision to, in effect, turn herself in so she could get a hearing before more sympathetic investigators was known by the U.S. news media before Palin’s speech, but was rarely, if ever, mentioned by TV pundits filling hours of air time with chatter about her charisma, her moose hunting and her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy.
Back in Alaska, state Republicans also took on the role played by congressional Republicans in Washington, attacking the fairness of any investigation that might put a GOP leader in a negative light.
John Coghill, a Republican state legislator from North Pole, Alaska, demanded that Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who has been overseeing the probe, resign because French suggested that Palin’s alleged abuse of power could lead to her impeachment.
“These statements cause me to think that the report is already written even though the investigation is only just begun and the most important witnesses have not even been interviewed,” Coghill said in a letter. [NYT, Sept. 6, 2008]
However, Palin and her administration appear determined to make sure that those witnesses don’t get interviewed, at least not in a way that might cause political embarrassment before the November elections.
State legislators have set a goal of issuing a report by Oct. 10 on Palin’s firing of state public safety commissioner Walt Monegan, but it now appears that the legislature will have to issue subpoenas to compel the testimony of the seven witnesses, including Palin’s top aide, her personnel director and the commissioner for administration.
A subpoena battle could eat up time both in getting approval from Republican legislators and in overcoming objections from lawyers for the witnesses.
Palin and her husband, Todd, also are balking at giving depositions to independent counsel Steve Branchflower, who was picked by the legislature to investigate whether Monegan’s firing was retaliation for his refusal to fire trooper Mike Wooten, who has been embroiled in a bitter divorce/custody battle with Palin’s sister for several years.
Palin’s lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, indicated that Sarah and Todd Palin would likely rebuff any request by Branchflower for a deposition and insist that the investigation only be handled by the state personnel board.
Palin’s legal team also appeared to be following another favorite tactic of the Bush administration – putting the investigator on the defensive by lodging complaints against him for supposed wrongdoing.
Attorney Van Flein complained that independent counsel Branchflower had sought to reach Todd Palin directly “on a secure and confidential line,” which Van Flein called “a serious security breach that we may be obligated to report to the Secret Service.” [Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 3, 2008]
Palin’s recent attempts to frustrate the legislative investigation reverse her assurances in late July that she was “happy to comply, to cooperate.”
After her surprise selection as John McCain’s running mate, she began traveling with the national Republican crowd, which has many years of experience in fending off legislative oversight of controversial actions by the Bush administration.
For instance, Bush has made broad executive privilege claims to block testimony from his subordinates about a White House drive to politicize the Justice Department, including the firing of nine federal prosecutors who were not considered “loyal Bushies.”
The case of Palin’s firing of public safety commissioner Monegan is somewhat different because the allegations are that the governor was abusing her power to carry out a personal -- rather than a political -- vendetta, but many of the tactics for thwarting an investigation would be similar.
When Palin was sworn in as Alaska’s governor in December 2006, she was enmeshed in a messy family feud with her sister’s ex-husband, trooper 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 a 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 said he 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?’”
Facing mounting evidence of improprieties, Palin now appears determined to sidetrack the investigation, much as President Bush has delayed and obstructed probes into his alleged wrongdoing for seven years.
Gov. Palin has a well-worn GOP playbook to draw from.
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This story was published on September 6, 2008.