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COMMENTARY:

Palin's New 'Troopergate' Troubles

by Jason Leopold
October 14, 2008
In defiance of the facts, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin claims that the Oct. 10 investigative report on “Troopergate” cleared her of both legal and ethical wrongdoing, but the fallout from the case continues to expand with lawsuits now likely against the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner whom Palin fired after he refused to fire her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper, submitted a complaint to the state personnel board on Monday seeking a hearing to “address reputational harm” caused by Palin.

In the complaint, which appears to set the stage for a lawsuit, Monegan’s attorney Jeffrey Feldman said Palin’s “inconsistent and changing explanations” for firing Monegan – including claims that he was fired for insubordination – have damaged his reputation.

“Mr. Monegan does not challenge the Governor’s right to discharge him as the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety,” the complaint said. “But the Governor is not entitled to make untrue and defamatory statements about her reasons for discharging a cabinet officer.

“Gov. Palin’s public statements accusing Mr. Monegan of serious misconduct were untrue and they have stigmatized his good name, severely damaged — and continue to damage — his reputation and impaired his ability to pursue future professional employment in law enforcement and related fields. This damage thus implicates his constitutionally protected liberty interests.”

On Oct. 10, an investigative report released by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers concluded that Palin abused her authority and broke state ethics laws by sanctioning a campaign to pressure subordinates, including Monegan, to fire her former brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten.

The report found that Palin violated a statute of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, which says "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust."

Reacting to the report in a phone conference with reporters on Oct. 12, Palin misrepresented the report’s findings.

“Well, I’m very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing," Palin said, "any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that."

Palin’s interpretation of the investigative report left some journalists scratching their heads. For instance, ABC News political writer Jake Tapper wrote a blog post that termed Palin’s comments “flatly false.”

Retaliation?

The “Troopergate” investigation centered on whether Palin, her husband Todd, and several of her senior aides pressured Public Safety Commissioner Monegan to fire Wooten, who had gone through a bitter divorce and custody battle with Palin’s sister. In July, Palin fired Monegan, who then publicly blamed his dismissal on his refusal to fire Wooten.

Palin denied that she was retaliating against Monegan and initially welcomed the legislative inquiry. The investigation was approved unanimously by the Republican-dominated Legislative Council, which then hired former prosecutor Steve Branchflower to head the probe.

In his Oct. 10 report, Branchflower said Monegan’s resistance to the pressure to fire Wooten played a part in Palin's decision to terminate him as the state's top police official, but that her firing decision was nonetheless lawful.

However, Branchflower determined that Palin abused her power and violated state ethics laws by allowing – and participating in – a campaign, spearheaded by her husband Todd, to pressure state officials to fire Wooten.

Branchflower’s findings could lead to a possible reprimand or fine from the state ethics board. Plus, the state legislature could move to sanction the governor when it reconvenes next year.

Gov. Palin also faces the prospect of lawsuits possibly brought by Monegan or Wooten or both for damages inflicted on them and their reputations.

Neither Monegan nor his attorney would say whether a lawsuit would be filed against the governor.

In the personnel-board complaint, however, Monegan's attorney signaled that a lawsuit was in the offing, stating that "Mr. Monegan requests that the board declare, or secure a declaration from the Attorney General, that Mr. Monegan has exhausted his administrative remedies and may assert his claim in Superior Court."

For his part, Wooten, the state trooper, is prepared to sue Palin, her husband, and the state for spending the past three years trying to get him fired from his job, according to John Cyr, the executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union that represents state troopers.

Also, a top Alaska State Trooper official who works with Wooten said Wooten has told several close associates that he will soon file a multimillion lawsuit against Palin. The official requested anonymity because Wooten, who has declined interview requests, did not clear him to speak about the plans.

"Trooper Wooten intends to sue Gov. Palin, her husband, and some people in her administration for slander defamation of character, and civil rights violations,” the official said. “His attorneys are considering filing in state and federal court."

The lawsuits could cause additional problems for Palin if Alaska’s taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for any settlements.

There’s also the prospect that if the McCain-Palin ticket prevails in the presidential election, civil lawsuits from the “Troopergate” affair could dog Palin as Vice President, the way litigation followed President Bill Clinton from Arkansas to the White House.

Criticizing Monegan

Some of Palin’s new legal difficulties can be traced back to Sept. 2, just a day before she accepted the GOP nomination, when she took the unusual step of filing an ethics complaint against herself.

The move was a bid to shift the investigation to the state personnel board whose three members are appointed by the governor and an attempt to force Branchflower to abandon his investigation.

Palin followed that maneuver with filings claiming that she fired Monegan because he has a “rogue mentality” and committed acts of “outright insubordination.” However, that became the groundwork for Monegan’s complaint to the same personnel board.

“Governor Palin attempted to support these allegations with selected documents to make it appear ... as if there was a factual basis for the assertions,” Monegan’s complaint said.

“The allegations were untrue, however. Mr. Monegan was very much a team player. At no time did he have or exhibit a ‘rogue mentality,’ nor did he commit any acts of insubordination during the period of time he served as Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.”

Last week, Palin was confronted by a television reporter during a conference call about the use of the word “rogue” to describe Monegan. She responded by trying to redefine the word “rogue,” saying, “Rogue isn’t a negative term when you consider that in a cabinet you need a team effort going forward with a governor’s agenda.”

Monegan asked the personnel board to convene a hearing so he can clear his name and “redress reputational harm by publicly proving that he was not a rogue employee or grossly insubordinate, as the Governor has alleged, and that he was not terminated as Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety for those reasons.”

Monegan’s attorney included more than 60 pages of documents to support his position, including e-mails that show a trip Monegan took to Washington to seek federal funding for a program to curb sexual assaults was not a case of “insubordination” as the McCain-Palin campaign has claimed.

According to the e-mails, Monegan and Palin coordinated the trip over an eight-month period.

Monegan’s personnel complaint also sheds more light on his interactions with Todd Palin. Monegan said he warned the governor’s husband that the pressure to fire Wooten opened the state to a lawsuit from Wooten.

"Because Trooper Wooten had already been investigated and disciplined for the conduct raised by Todd Palin, in the absence of new information or new allegations, re-disciplining him for the same conduct was legally impermissible,” according to the complaint’s supporting documents.

“Firing him for the conduct for which he had already been disciplined by Mr. Monegan's predecessor would almost certainly guarantee that Trooper Wooten would sue the State and that he likely would prevail."

Monegan described Todd Palin as “displeased” with this response, leading the governor’s husband to suggest that criminal charges be filed against Wooten for illegally using his then-wife's hunting permit to kill a moose.

Monegan, a former police chief in Anchorage, advised Todd Palin that the idea had several drawbacks. Not only had the incident occurred more than three years earlier, Monegan said, but a prosecutor also would have to pursue charges against the governor’s sister “who had willingly allowed Trooper Wooten to take the moose on her permit.”

Further, Monegan explained, “the governor's parents had participated in butchering and consuming an animal they knew to have been illegally taken, [so] Trooper Wooten might not be the only person a prosecutor would want to hold accountable. Todd Palin reacted very negatively to that assessment and insisted that Trooper Wooten, and only Trooper Wooten should be charged."

In a related development, Wooten’s representative Cyr said the Public Safety Employees Union will amend a pending ethics complaint against Palin to add the “claim that the governor improperly and illegally tried to get Mike Wooten fired."

The union’s original complaint accused Palin of improperly accessing Wooten’s personnel files.


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 October 14, 2008.