Posted on Fri, Aug. 29, 2008
last updated: August 29, 2008 07:51:36 PM
The first serious scandal in Gov. Sarah Palin's administration has roots in a family feud. It erupted into public view with the July 11 firing of the state's top public safety official.
Some call it Troopergate.
Palin's abrupt firing 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 expected to take months.
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.
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 her public safety commissioner, 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 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.
The Wooten matter first was publicized on the blog of a Palin political rival, Andrew Halcro, soon after Monegan's firing.
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 council for the investigation, which he is currently pursuing by taking depositions from involved parties.
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.
She has maintained that her decision to fire Monegan has nothing to do with Monegan's refusal to dump Wooten.