Alaska legislators lock horns over Palin inquiry

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 25, 2008 

State lawmakers in opposing camps are frustrated with the direction of the Legislature's Troopergate investigation of Gov. Sarah Palin. One group is furious at the decision of potential witnesses to defy the Legislature's subpoenas, and another thinks the investigation has been politicized and wants to put it on ice.

But neither is getting much traction to do anything. Talk among legislators of calling themselves into special session to force people to testify appears to be fizzling. So is a push by those on the other side who had hoped the Legislature would postpone the investigation of Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, until after the Nov. 4 presidential election.

"There are just a lot of different frustrations," said Kenai Republican state Rep. Mike Chenault. "It is just become such a political quagmire that I don't think there's a winner in any of this."

That leaves the Legislature's investigation rolling forward without cooperation from the governor or those who have refused to comply with the subpoenas, including the governor's husband, Todd. The investigator hired by the Legislature, Steve Branchflower, is supposed to present his findings Oct. 10

Palin refuses to cooperate with the Legislature's investigation into whether she abused her powers in firing her former public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan. Monegan has said he believes he lost his job because he resisted pressure to fire a state trooper involved in an ugly divorce from the governor's sister.

Palin instead favors a separate investigation by the state personnel board, but that one is out of public view and may not be finished before the election.

Along with Todd Palin, state deputy chief of staff Randy Ruaro and Ivy Frye, a Palin aide and close confidante, have refused to comply with the Legislature's subpoenas. Seven others served with subpoenas are supposed to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday but legislators don't expect them to show.

Legislators could vote to call themselves into special session to enforce the subpoenas through state troopers if necessary. State senators have talked about doing just that but it seems unlikely, said Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski.

"It's an election year and people are running for re-election and scattered all over the state, it's probably slim," said Wielechowski, a Democrat and member of the judiciary committee that issued the subpoenas.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene in January for its regular session. The investigation and the election will be over by that point. But Wielechowski said the Senate could still decide at that point to go after those who defied subpoenas.

"It's the same with the court, if you didn't appear in court, quite frankly a judge would issue a warrant for your arrest, even if it was a year later. So, at some point I guess you have to decide whether you are going to allow witnesses to ignore lawful subpoenas," he said.

Wielechowski said the potential penalty for ignoring the subpoenas is a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment of up to six months. But Ed O'Callaghan, a former New York federal prosecutor now working locally for the McCain-Palin campaign, said this is not a case of ignoring subpoenas, at least not by Todd Palin.

Todd filed "lawful objections to the subpoena, through his attorney, Thomas Van Flein. And those objections were lodged with the Senate Judiciary Committee, the authority that issued the subpoena in the first place," O'Callaghan said.

Wielechowski, an attorney, argued that's not an option for dealing with subpoenas. People subpoenaed either have to appear and testify or go to court to try and quash the subpoena, he said. Meanwhile, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara is trying to get the state troopers to investigate if anyone is guilty of "witness tampering" by advising people not to honor the Legislature's subpoenas.

"OCTOBER SURPRISE"

Palin had initially said she'd cooperate with the Legislature's investigation. But that changed after she became the vice presidential nominee. The McCain-Palin campaign argues the personnel board, not the Legislature, has jurisdiction. It also accused the Democratic legislator overseeing the investigation, Sen. Hollis French, of running a biased witch hunt, including telling the media that Branchflower's report could be a damaging "October surprise" for Palin and that she faces possible impeachment.

Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Palin appointee, wrote that state employees are in a difficult position "having to choose between supporting the Governor's position and voluntarily complying with the subpoenas."

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras said the McCain campaign is going too far in attacking the bipartisan investigation over French's comments to the media.

"I think some of Hollis French's hyperbole was unfortunate. But so what?" said Ramras, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "Grow up, I mean let's finish the report, he doesn't influence what Branchflower is writing."

Other Republican lawmakers disagree. North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill said French politicized the investigation. Coghill wants it delayed.

But he and a group of lawmakers including House Speaker John Harris appear to have fallen short in their push to get the legislative council, which is in charge of the investigation, to even have a meeting before the Branchflower report is due.

"You're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't on this one. If you move forward (with the investigation) it's going to be a political issue. If you delay, it's going to be a political issue," Coghill said. "That was the problem that I had with Sen. French going out (to the media) the way that he did. Once you do that, no matter what anybody does, it's going to be billed as a political move."

MOTION TO DISMISS

Five other state legislators filed a lawsuit trying to stop the investigation. They argued the Legislature went beyond its authority and that it's a "McCarthyistic" investigation led by supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

The lawyer representing the legislative council, Peter Maassen, filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss that suit.

Maassen said it was telling that no one had asked for a temporary restraining order, which would require a judge to decide whether to freeze the investigation. "I think they just wanted to make their points and pleadings without actually having to follow through," he said.

But Kevin Clarkson, a lawyer representing five Republican legislators behind the lawsuit, said the only reason they were waiting to file a restraining order was to see if legislators would put the investigation on hold themselves first. The legislators who filed the suit are Mike Kelly, Wes Keller, Bob Lynn, Fred Dyson and Tom Wagoner.

A group of Fairbanks residents filed a similar lawsuit. Maassen said he'd request it be dismissed as well.

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