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Palin’s “Troopergate” story

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This story appeared in the Anchorage Daily News online edition yesterday. It is a recapitulation of a sordid family feud involving GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her sister’s ex-husband, a state trooper. At issue is whether Governor Palin improperly intervened to demand that the state public safety commissioner fire the trooper. She later dismissed the commissioner. The Legislature has hired a special counsel to determine whether there was any official misconduct. Readers will recall that the term “Troopergate” was originally applied to Paula Jones’ lawsuit against Bill Clinton. She alleged that an Arkansas state trooper arranged to bring her to Clinton’s hotel room. Could the investigation in Alaska impact Palin’s pending nomination? Obviously. McCain doesn’t think so. I don’t think so either, unless there is more to the story than we now know. Since the investigation will continue almost until election day, the story will linger throughout the campaign and could be a distraction or an embarrassment. This is the story: Some call it Troopergate. Palin’s abrupt dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan is now being investigated by a special counsel hired by the Alaska Legislature as to whether there was any official misconduct. The Legislature is spending up to $100,000 “to investigate the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch.” The investigation is supposed to wrap up by Oct. 31. At issue is whether Palin, her administration or family improperly pressured Monegan to fire Alaska state trooper Michael Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin’s sister, and whether Palin fired Monegan when that didn’t happen. Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, and Wooten are divorced but still battling in court over custody and visitation. Palin will be deposed along with others in the governor’s office and former administration officials, said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat and former state prosecutor from Anchorage who is serving as the project director for the investigation. The special counsel just this week was trying to arrange the deposition, French said. The investigation will continue, despite Palin’s newfound prominence, French said. “I think it raises the profile but it doesn’t really change the mission or the work,” the senator said. Before she was governor, Palin pushed for a trooper investigation of Wooten over a number of matters, including using a Taser on his stepson, illegally shooting a moose and accusations of driving drunk. At one point, Palin and her husband, Todd, hired a private investigator. Troopers did investigate, and Wooten was suspended for 10 days, later reduced to five. Palin initially said that, after she took office in December 2006, she broached the subject of Wooten with Monegan just once, when they discussed her security detail. She said that she told Monegan of threats Wooten had made against her father and also that Wooten had threatened to “bring me down.” She said she thought that was the end of it. But a week after his firing, Monegan said there was pressure to fire Wooten from Palin’s administration as well as from her husband, Todd Palin. The pressure continued until just a month or two before he was let go, Monegan said. Monegan said Palin herself again brought up Wooten in February as they were walking together to wish a state senator a happy birthday. Monegan said he told Palin he had to keep her at arm’s distance on the matter, and she agreed. Todd Palin talked to him several times, and three officials in Palin’s administration also put pressure on the department, Monegan said. “I don’t think you can avoid finding out what he did but … that’s not the focus of the investigation,” French said about Todd Palin. “One branch of government is interested in whether another branch of government broke the law.” The Wooten matter was first publicized soon after Monegan’s firing on the blog of a Palin political rival, Andrew Halcro. On July 17, the Public Safety Employees Association, with Wooten’s permission, released the investigative file concerning the complaints brought against the trooper by the Palins, Palin’s father and others. The internal personnel investigation began in April 2005, long before Palin became governor and months before her October 2005 announcement that she was running. The investigation into Wooten wrapped up in March 2006. Troopers found four instances in which Wooten violated policy, broke the law, or both: – Wooten used a Taser on his stepson – He shot a moose without a permit, which is illegal. At the time he was married to McCann, who has a permit but never intended to shoot it herself. – He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion. – He told others that his father-in-law – Palin’s father, Chuck Heath – would “eat a f’ing lead bullet” if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce. Wooten’s 10-day suspension was reduced to five after his union filed a grievance. On July 28, the state Legislative Council, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives, approved hiring an independent investigator to look into Monegan’s firing and any abuse of power. A few days later, retired prosecutor Steve Branchflower was named special counsel for the investigation. “I’ve said all along you could come up with dust, you come up with no evidence of wrongdoing, or you could come up with clear evidence of wrong doing. And it might be by the governor, it might be somebody else,” French, the state senator, said. This month, as her administration gathered materials for the legislative investigation, Palin released a recording of a phone call in which one of her aides pressured a trooper lieutenant to fire Wooten. That contradicted her earlier claims that there had been no pressure. She said she was unaware of the conversation until the investigation uncovered it. She also disclosed that members of her administration had had about two dozen contacts with public safety officials about Wooten. In the phone call, which was recorded by troopers, as they do routinely, aide Frank Bailey told the trooper lieutenant that Palin and her husband wanted to know why Wooten still has a job. “Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, ‘Why on earth hasn’t this, why is this guy still representing the department?’ He’s a horrible recruiting tool, you know,” Bailey told Lt. Rodney Dial. Palin has put Bailey on paid administrative leave during the investigation. She said she never asked Bailey to make that call. After Palin fired Monegan, her pick for his replacement backfired. Charles Kopp, who had been police chief in Kenai, stepped down as public safety commissioner in July after two weeks of controversy over revelations that he had been accused of sexual harassment while police chief in Kenai. The 2005 sexual harassment complaint in Kenai resulted in a reprimand. Palin said she knew of the allegation but thought it was unsubstantiated. At a press conference to announce Kopp’s resignation, both Palin and Kopp gave brief statements, then dashed off without answering questions. Regarding Monegan, Palin has maintained that her decision to fire him has nothing to do with Monegan’s refusal to dump Wooten. She said she wanted a “new direction” for the department. Palin has formed a committee to help her pick a new public safety commissioner.

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