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COMMENTARY:

Palin's 'Troopergate' Battle Rages

by Jason Leopold
September 20, 2008
As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin works to derail a legislative inquiry into her firing of the public safety commissioner, state officials are vowing to finish a report on the controversy by Oct. 10 and to weigh contempt proceedings against Palin’s husband early next year.

Palin, who initially welcomed the investigation into her dismissal of commissioner Walt Monegan in July, now appears determined to block completion of the inquiry before the Nov. 4 election when she hopes to become the next Vice President of the United States.

But her delaying tactics may extend the controversy into the start of John McCain’s presidency should he win. That could create a distraction for the new administration, especially if Palin’s husband Todd faces possible arrest for ignoring a subpoena from the state legislature.

Palin’s handling of the case also raises more questions about her credibility as a “reformer” who says no one is above the law. She now seems to be counting on her new-found celebrity and the hardball tactics of national Republican operatives to shield her from legislative oversight.

Further, Palin’s resistance to the investigation may remind some voters of the disdain that President George W. Bush has shown toward congressional oversight, including a similar pattern of ignoring subpoenas issued to Bush’s top aides who were involved in the 2006 firing of nine federal prosecutors deemed not “loyal Bushies.”

With the McCain campaign battling Democratic accusations that a McCain presidency would mean “more of the same,” the image of Palin and her husband refusing to answer questions about an alleged abuse of power might recall the troubling image of Bush stonewalling congressional oversight.

Palin’s “Troopergate” scandal centers on whether the governor, her husband and several of her senior aides pressured commissioner Monegan to fire Mike Wooten, a state trooper who was in an ugly divorce and child custody dispute with Gov. Palin's sister.

In Alaska, the battle lines around the scandal have grown sharper in the past two weeks as the McCain campaign dispatched national Republican operatives to advise Palin and her inner circle how to contest and discredit the legislative inquiry.

Demeaning the Prosecutor

Rescinding her earlier promise to cooperate, Palin then began challenging the legitimacy of the investigation and demeaning the professionalism of independent counsel Steven Branchflower, a longtime prosecutor hired to conduct the probe.

Palin’s lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, toughened the rhetoric this past week, claiming the investigation was “being pursued for partisan purposes” and arguing that the Judiciary Committee has no authority to investigate the governor’s office.

Additionally, Van Flein said the subpoena issued for Todd Palin is “unduly burdensome” due to “preexisting travel plans” because his wife is the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee.

McCain-Palin campaign aide Meg Stapleton offered up another novel legal argument on Thursday, saying Alaska law prohibits action on ethics violations while someone is running for elected office.

“That law was passed to insulate investigations from exactly the kind of political maneuvering we are seeing in this inquiry," Stapleton said. However, the law pertains to individuals running for statewide office, not national.

Stapleton also said Monegan was fired because of “insubordination with respect to the budget process,” not because he balked at Palin’s demands that he oust her ex-brother-in-law.

Despite Palin’s success rallying some state Republican lawmakers to her side in the Troopergate battle, other legislative leaders from both parties appeared unwilling to back down in the face of the governor’s pressure.

Alaska Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, recommended on Friday that Todd Palin and the two other Palin aides be held in contempt for their refusal to honor the legislative subpoenas.

French, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican who has been critical of Palin’s recent behavior, that the Alaska Legislature must decide whether to impose fines or pursue contempt charges that could lead to Todd Palin's arrest.

“The full Senate will decide what action to take,” an aide to French said. “Provisions in the statute range from fines to arrest. But that will be at the discretion of the legislative committee.”

However, the Alaska Senate does not convene until January, meaning that the issue of the subpoenas will likely spill over into the start of a new administration in Washington.

Report Still Planned

Despite the obstructions from Palin and her advisers, counsel Branchflower still believes he has enough evidence to proceed with his plan to release a report by Oct. 10, according to people involved with the investigation.

These people said Branchflower has documentary evidence and information from witnesses showing that individuals in Palin’s camp may have illegally tried to deny trooper Wooten worker’s compensation benefits for a back injury that he suffered last year when he slipped on icy pavement while pulling a body from a wrecked automobile.

They added that it is considered likely that Wooten will file a civil suit against Palin and members of her administration after Branchflower’s report is issued, a situation reminiscent of civil lawsuits that dogged President Bill Clinton from his days as Arkansas governor after he moved to the White House.

While Palin denies that she fired Monegan because he balked at firing Wooten, some of the newly available evidence confirms Palin’s obsession with her ex-brother-in-law who she claimed had threatened physical harm to her family during heated arguments about the divorce.

Palin sent an e-mail to Monegan on July 17, 2007, with a copy to Attorney General Talis Colberg, regarding proposed handgun legislation that would bar weapon sales to people who had made violent threats.

“The first thought that hit me,” Palin wrote, “about people not being able to buy guns when they’re threatening to kill someone went to my ex brother-in-law, the trooper, who threatened to kill my dad yet was not even reprimanded by his bosses and still to this day carries a gun, of course. ...

“We can’t have double standards. Remember when that death threat was reported, and follow-on threats from Mike [Wooten] that he was going ‘to bring Sarah and her family down’ - instead of any reprimand WE were told by trooper union personnel that we’d be sued if we talked about those threats.

“Amazing. And he’s still a trooper, and he still carries a gun, and he still tells anyone who will listen that he will never work for that b*tch (me) because he has such anger and distain [sic] toward my family.

“So consistency is needed here. No one’s above the law. If the law needs to be changed to not allow access to guns for people threatening to kill someone, it must be applied to everyone.”

At the time, Palin was unaware that Alaska state troopers had already conducted an internal investigation into more than three dozen complaints that she and her family had filed against Wooten and that he had been suspended for five days.

Personnel File

The contents of that disciplinary investigation were sealed in Wooten’s personnel file until February 2008, when he was required to release it to his ex-wife’s attorney as part of a custody hearing.

Though that information was not public record – and was never introduced into the court record – Palin apparently learned about its contents from her sister. The campaign to get Wooten fired gained momentum.

In February 2008, Palin’s director of state boards and commissions, Frank Bailey, pressed police Lt. Rodney Dial about why Wooten had not been dismissed.

On July 11, 2008, Palin abruptly fired public safety commissioner Monegan, who then went public with his account of the mounting campaign against Wooten from the governor’s family and staff.

Though Palin vehemently denied that she was 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.

The 14-member Legislative Council, with 10 Republican members, voted unanimously in July to launch an investigation, which Palin said she “would never prohibit or be less than enthusiastic about.”

“Let's deal with the facts and you do that via an investigation,” Palin said in July.

However, in early September after McCain plucked her from obscurity to be the Republican vice presidential nominee, Palin’s response to the investigation changed into outright resistance.

Democratic Sen. Kim Elton, who chairs the Alaska Legislative Council, wrote to Attorney General Colberg, a longtime Palin ally, criticizing the Palin administration’s broken promises about the investigation.

"Bluntly, I feel like Charlie Brown after Lucy moved the football," Elton wrote.


Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.

This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.



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This story was published on September 21, 2008.