Alaska Inquiry Concludes Palin Abused Powers

Published on
by
the New York Times

Alaska Inquiry Concludes Palin Abused Powers

by
Serge F. Kovaleski

Republican vice president candidate Sarah Palin stands behind John McCain as he speaks in Wisconsin. The Republican presidential ticket has gone on the defensive after investigators found vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had abused her powers as Alaska governor. (AFP/Getty Images/Joshua Lott)

Gov. Sarah Palin abused the powers of her office by pressuring subordinates to try to get her former brother-in-law, a state trooper, fired, an investigation by the Alaska Legislature has concluded. The inquiry found, however, that she was within her right to dismiss her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, who was the trooper's boss.

A 263-page report released Friday by lawmakers in Alaska found that Ms. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, had herself exerted pressure to get Trooper Michael Wooten dismissed, as well as allowed her husband and subordinates to press for his firing, largely as a result of his temperament and past disciplinary problems.

"Such impermissible and repeated contacts," the report states, "create conflicts of interests for subordinate employees who must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of that displeasure." The report concludes that the action was a violation of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.

What now lies ahead is not fully known at this point. Ms. Palin could be censured by the Legislature, but that is unlikely.

Ms. Palin, who had been elected governor in 2006, was tapped as Senator John McCain's running mate in late August, about a month after an inquiry was opened into her firing of Mr. Monegan. Her political ascendancy took what was essentially a state personnel matter and elevated it into a national issue, one that has been simmering in the background of an increasingly heated presidential race.

In the report, the independent investigator, Stephen E. Branchflower, a former prosecutor in Anchorage, said that Ms. Palin wrongfully allowed her husband, Todd, to use state resources as part of the effort to have Trooper Wooten dismissed.

The report says she knowingly "permitted Todd Palin to use the governor's office and the resources of the governor's office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired."

Further, it says, she "knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda."

Three years ago, Trooper Wooten and the governor's sister, Molly McCann, were locked in a harsh divorce and child-custody battle that further turned the Palin family against him. The couple divorced in January 2006.

As a result of several complaints against Trooper Wooten, he was suspended from the state police force for five days. However, Mr. Branchflower's report found numerous instances in which Ms. Palin, her husband and her subordinates tried to press for harsher punishment, even though Mr. Monegan and others told them they had gone as far as the law and civil service rules would allow.

Ms. Palin has denied that anyone told Mr. Monegan to dismiss Trooper Wooten, or that the commissioner's ouster had anything to do with the trooper, who remains on the force.

Mr. Monegan has said that he believes he lost his job because he would not bend to pressure to dismiss Trooper Wooten. On July 28, the Legislative Council, a bipartisan body of House and Senate members that can convene to make decisions when the Legislature is not in session, approved an independent investigation into whether the governor abused the powers of her office to pursue a personal vendetta.

Mr. Monegan said in an interview Friday night that he felt relieved.

"I feel that my beliefs and opinions that Wooten was a significant factor, if not the factor, in my termination have been validated," Mr. Monegan said, adding, "I was resisting the governor from the very beginning on the Wooten matter to protect her from exactly what just happened to her here, being found to have acted inappropriately."

The report was released after Alaska lawmakers emerged from a private session in Anchorage where they spent more than of six hours discussing the ethics report and what portions should be made public. The legislative council ended up voting unanimously to make part of the overall report public.

At a news conference Friday evening, a local McCain-Palin campaign spokeswoman, Meghan Stapleton, said that Mr. Branchflower's abuse of power finding was the result of an "overreach" by the investigator who went beyond "the intent of the original" inquiry.

Ms. Stapleton added that the governor "feels absolutely vindicated" because the report concluded that Ms. Palin was acting within her legal authority when she "reassigned" Mr. Monegan. On July 11, he was told by the governor's acting chief of staff that Ms. Palin wanted him to head the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and that she wanted to take the public safety agency in a new direction.

In an e-mail statement, Ms. Stapleton said the report showed that the investigation was a "partisan led inquiry run by Obama supporters and the Palins were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior."

Minutes after the report was released, the Obama campaign sent an Associated Press article in an e-mail message to reporters, with the subject line, "Palin ‘unlawfully abused her authority.' " It contained no other comment.

A pre-emptive report on the investigation by the McCain-Palin campaign, released late Thursday, said that beginning in October 2007, the governor and members of her administration repeatedly clashed with Mr. Monegan over budgetary issues and the direction of his agency.

After months of "repeatedly ignoring the governor's budget priorities, making public statements that directly challenged the governor's policy agenda and taking numerous unilateral actions in conflict with the governor in support of his own policy agenda, his replacement in July 2008 should have come as no surprise," that report said.

Mr. Branchflower based his finding of abuse of power on Alaska's Executive Branch Ethics Act, which was established to "discourage executive branch employees from acting upon personal interest in the performance of their public responsibilities and to avoid conflicts of interest in the performance of duty," the report says.

It says, however, that "Governor Palin's firing of Commissioner Walt Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads." It cites the Alaska Constitution, which says "the governor may discharge department heads without cause."

The report continues, "In light of this constitutional and statutory authority, it is clear that Governor Palin could fire Commissioner Walt Monegan at will, for almost any reason, or no reason at all."

The report states that, while there is no doubt that Mr. Monegan's "failure to fire Trooper Wooten was a substantial factor in his own firing," the evidence suggests it was not the sole reason.

The report chastised Ms. Palin for declining to be interviewed.

Legislative leaders said that in cases like this, a violation of the ethics law would typically be resolved by the state Personnel Board. However, that chain of events is complicated by the fact that the panel is conducting an inquiry of its own. Ms. Palin has pledged to cooperate with that investigation.

Even as Ms. Palin drew large crowds as she campaigned across the United States, the issue was brewing in Alaska. But the campaign repeatedly shrugged off the accusations, stating that they were not serious and that she was not guilty of any wrongdoing.

Still, the accusations undermined the campaign's portrayal of Ms. Palin as a "maverick" and an ethics reformer who has taken on special interests and fought for average residents.

The McCain campaign flew operatives into Alaska to wage a public relations campaign to discredit the investigation and to help mount legal challenges to it.

Karen Aho contributed reporting from Anchorage.

 

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