The state has hired a private lawyer to represent Gov. Sarah Palin's office in the legislature's investigation into the firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. The lawyer already has challenged whether lawmakers even have authority to oversee the inquiry.
The state Department of Law hired Thomas Van Flein, an Anchorage attorney with expertise in employment law and professional liability, because Attorney General Talis Colberg has a potential conflict of interest and shouldn't represent the governor, Van Flein said Monday.
His work started Aug. 21. He's being paid $185 an hour, lower than his usual rate, to represent Palin and others in the governor's office, he said. He is initially authorized to spend up to $95,000.
The state's Legislative Council, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives, authorized the investigation last month and approved spending of $100,000. They've hired a special counsel, retired state prosecutor Steve Branchflower.
The investigation concerns whether Palin or others in her administration abused their power or improperly pressured Monegan to fire a state trooper who is Palin's ex-brother-in-law. Palin and her father have said Trooper Mike Wooten was a "loose cannon" who made threats against them. The investigation has received national attention since Sen. John McCain, the apparent Republican nominee for president, chose Palin as his running mate Friday.
A four-page backgrounder on the Wooten matter put out Monday by the McCain/Palin campaign says that Palin's husband, Todd, and members of her staff had made inquiries "about the appropriate Department of Public Safety procedures for dealing with someone they considered a dangerous person and rogue trooper."
Palin has denied pressuring Monegan. The campaign says she only recently became aware of efforts by Todd and others.
Because Colberg has acknowledged contacting Monegan about Wooten, he's a potential witness, Van Flein said Monday. So an outside law firm needed to be brought in to represent the governor's office, he said.
He said the governor's office welcomes the inquiry and will cooperate.
Van Flein said the investigation should be handled by the state Personnel Board, not the legislature, because it's "statutorily mandated" to handle ethics cases. The three-member Personnel Board is appointed by the governor.
In a letter to Branchflower, Van Flein also asked for all witness statements, documents and other materials collected in the course of the investigation.
"No" to both requests, said state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat and former state prosecutor who is project director for the legislative investigation.
The legislature has its own power of investigation, French wrote to Van Flein on Monday.
"Governor Palin has repeatedly stated that she has nothing to hide and that she and her administration will cooperate fully with this investigation. Is your client aware that you seem to be challenging the Legislature's jurisdiction?" French wrote.
As to witness statements, French said he had instructed Branchflower not to provide them. Colberg conducted a separate inquiry for the governor, and the governor can get statements from him, French noted.
"I think you will agree that it would be highly unusual for an investigator to share information with one of the targets of the investigation," French wrote. "I am unaware of any precedent for such an arrangement."
The back-and-forth quickly escalated.
"Our concern is that Hollis French turns into Ken Starr and uses public money to pursue a political vendetta rather than truly pursue an honest inquiry into an alleged ethics issue," Van Flein said in an interview.
"How does he explain the unanimous vote (to pursue the investigation) by the Republican-dominated Legislative Council?" French shot back.
Later in the day, French added, "It's too bad the governor has stooped to hiring a name-calling lawyer. That doesn't seem very open and transparent does it?"
Branchflower hasn't been able to set up an interview with Palin. French said the state will fly Branchflower to wherever Palin is on the campaign trail if needed.
"Clearly the governor's new political role will make it more challenging for her to make time for this investigation," French wrote. But Palin needs to be interviewed sometime in September, he said.
Van Flein said the investigation is "bad timing" in the middle of a presidential campaign. He said he couldn't guarantee her availability this month.
If witnesses aren't available, French wrote, he'll ask the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, to issue subpoenas.
Van Flein said several people from the McCain campaign contacted him about the Wooten matter as part of the vetting process, before Palin was announced as McCain's pick.
The lawyer said he thinks Palin will be vindicated.
"We have a governor that exercised her constitutional right to terminate a commissioner. We have a family concerned about their safety. We have them asking what do you do with a trooper ... who might pose a threat.
"We don't have any sex. We don't have any drugs. And there's no blue dress. Nor are there any shady real estate deals here," Van Flein said. "In the big picture, I think people are going to be disappointed that this is not a scandal."