Report: Palin let Todd use governor's office to push firing

Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 10, 2008 

This story was reported and written by Daily News staff members Don Hunter, Sean Cockerham, Wesley Loy, Kyle Hopkins and Bill White.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power in pushing for the firing of a state trooper once married to her sister and by allowing her husband to use the governor's office in a crusade against the officer, a legislative investigation found.

"Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired," concluded investigator Steve Branchflower in his report made public Friday.

The governor let her husband, Todd, use the governor's office and its resources, "including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired," Branchflower wrote.

"She had the authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act," he wrote.

This created conflicts of interests for the state employees Todd Palin was contacting. "They must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of such displeasure. This was one of the very reasons the Ethics Act was promulgated by the Legislature," Branchflower wrote.

Palin also made several inquiries herself about why Wooten remained on the job shortly after she became governor, Branchflower said.

His report was released Friday by a 12-0 vote of the Legislative Council, with eight Republicans and four Democrats voting. Some members of the panel said they didn't agree with Branchflower's findings, however.

Besides the abuse of power finding, Branchflower made three other findings in his investigation of the so-called Troopergate matter:

-- Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, in July was a lawful exercise of her powers. However, Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was one of several reasons he lost his job, the investigator said.

-- A Wooten workers' compensation claim was properly handled by an Anchorage firm, Harbor Adjustment Service, working under contract to the state.

--This story was reported and written by Daily News staff members Don Hunter, Sean Cockerham, Wesley Loy, Kyle Hopkins and Bill White The state attorney general's office "failed to substantially comply" with Branchflower's Aug. 6 request to Palin for e-mails about the case.

Palin ran as an ethics reformer when she won the governor's office in 2006, a theme she's pounded in her campaign as the Republican nominee for vice president.

The Branchflower report has attracted huge interest. Reporters from all over the world camped out for six hours in the downtown Anchorage legislative information office waiting for release of the report.

In a five-page response issued Friday night, Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, accuses Branchflower and Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the investigation, of using the probe in a partisan attempt to "smear the governor by innuendo."

Van Flein said Branchflower's finding that Palin violated the ethics act is flawed because she received no monetary benefit from whatever actions she and her husband are accused of. He cited several prior ethics investigations.

"The common thread of all of these Ethics Act cases is money and the use of a government position to personally gain," Van Flein's statement said.

Branchflower wrote that Alaska's ethics act forbids state officials from using their office for personal benefit, which he found to mean anything in their own self interest.

The McCain-Palin campaign emphasized the report showed Palin acted within her authority by removing Monegan from his job as public safety commissioner. Campaign officials said the Legislative Council "seriously overreached" by finding fault with how the governor and her husband reacted to trooper Wooten.

"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and the public interest by reporting to appropriate authorities the conduct of a threatening and abusive trooper," campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton said.

TROUBLE GOES BACK FOR YEARS

The Legislative Council hired Branchflower in August to investigate whether Palin or members of her administration abused their powers in pushing for Wooten's firing, and whether their efforts resulted in Monegan losing his job.

Wooten was involved in a nasty divorce with Palin's sister, Molly. The divorce was finalized in 2006 but custody and other issues over their children continue.

The Palins contend Wooten was a bad cop who threatened to kill Chuck Heath, the governor's father, and a bad person who Tasered his stepson, drove his patrol car after drinking, and claimed a workers' comp disability when he was capable of working. Todd Palin repeatedly told people that he and his wife considered Wooten a threat to his family. Wooten was suspended for five days in 2006, before Palin became governor, as a result of a trooper investigation into his behavior.

Branchflower, however, wrote that he doesn't believe the Palins were truly afraid of Wooten.

"I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons."

ADVERTISEMENT Shortly after Palin was elected in November 2006, she and her husband met with Gary Wheeler, a state trooper assigned to protect the governor. Wheeler asked the Palins if they were afraid of anyone. "I got a negative response, meaning that there -- they basically said no," Wheeler told the investigator.

But after Palin was sworn in on Dec. 5, 2006, the Palins told Wheeler about Wooten, Branchflower said.

Yet the governor cut the size of her protection detail, "an act that is inconsistent with a desire to avoid harm from Trooper Wooten," Branchflower wrote.

The Palins' lawyer, Van Flein, responded Branchflower "outrageously" downplayed the apprehension that the Palins and the governor's parents felt about Wooten.

"Branchflower was never tased by Wooten, was never threatened with death by a "f----- lead bullet"; never had his teenage daughter verbally assaulted by Wooten, and was never bullied and intimidated by Wooten," Van Flein wrote.

REACTIONS ARE DIVIDED

The chairman of the Legislative Council, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he agreed with Branchflower's findings but wasn't ready to suggest there should be any consequences for the governor.

"We don't charge people, we don't try people as legislators," Elton said. Any further action or disciplinary measures, he said, would be up to Palin's executive branch, the attorney general or the state Personnel Board, which is conducting its own Troopergate investigation.

Branchflower said his report did not include late-arriving statements from state officials who, on the advice of Attorney General Talis Colberg, had resisted subpoenas. They, as well as Todd Palin, did provide written statements this week after a judge upheld the subpoenas. Their statements did not cause Branchflower to change his conclusions.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the report is flawed because it didn't include those statements.

Therriault said Todd Palin's written response indicates that Gov. Palin, at some point, urged her husband to drop his efforts against Wooten. That information goes to the heart of Branchflower's conclusion that the governor violated the ethics law, Therriault said.

Therriault said Branchflower was unable to consider those late-arriving materials "because we had this artificial deadline today."

"Why?" he continued. "Because we're in a political season."

In his sworn statement this week, Todd Palin said about conversations with his wife about Wooten, "At some point Sarah told me to 'drop it' and stop talking about the issue and I discussed it with her much less often." He said he spoke repeatedly with many other state officials, however.

Senate President Lyda Green said the report doesn't speak well for the governor.

"The problem with power is that people pay attention to it," the Wasilla Republican said. "And it's very easy to get beside yourself and use it in the wrong way.

"And we do have to leave personal business at home," she said.

Two other lawmakers said the governor and her husband's actions were understandable.

"Who is going to blame Todd Palin for protecting his family?" said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole. "Not me."

Another member of the Legislative Council, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he thinks Branchflower's findings are wrong, and that Palin didn't violate the ethics act. "She and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family," Lynn said. "I think any normal person would do the same."

Monegan said Friday night that, overall, he's relieved with the report's finding. But he said he believes the Wooten issue was more than merely a "contributing factor" to his firing as public safety commissioner, as Branchflower concluded.

"Wooten was the significant factor," Monegan said, not a string of other allegations the Palin administration and the campaign lodged against him: budget conflicts, unauthorized trips to Washington, D.C., lack of recruiting.

"Those were small, little things made much larger" because of the "emotional energy and heat" the Palins felt over the Wooten issue, Monegan said.

FEEDBACK FOR COMPLAINANTS

The release of Branchflower's 263-page report came after the Legislative Council discussed it for six hours in a closed-door meeting.

Branchflower recommends the Legislature change the way complaints against peace officers such as troopers are handled. Lawmakers should consider making it possible for people who file such complaints to get feedback about the status of their complaint and whatever action was taken about it, he wrote.

The initial complaint against Wooten was filed by Gov. Palin's father, Chuck Heath, before she was elected governor in 2006. Branchflower says the inability of the family to get information about what was happening with the complaint was frustrating to them.

"I believe their frustration was real as was their skepticism about whether their complaints were being zealously investigated," Branchflower's report said. "The irony is that the complaints were taken very seriously, and a thorough investigation was under way. However, the law prevented the Troopers from giving them any feedback whatsoever."

The law should try to balance the need for confidentiality with a recognition that feedback to the filer of a complaint is also important, the report said.

In the second finding, Branchflower says Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was not the sole reason for his dismissal but that it was a "contributing factor." Still, he said, Palin's firing of Monegan was "a proper and lawful exercise" of the governor's authority.

The third finding says a workers compensation claim filed by Wooten was handled appropriately. Number four concludes that the attorney general's office failed to comply with Branchflower's Aug. 6 request for information about the case in the form of e-mails.

Branchflower writes that his investigation didn't take into account late-arriving statements from several administration officials who, on the advice of Attorney General Talis Colberg, resisted subpoenas. They agreed to provide written statements this week, however, after a state judge upheld the subpoenas. Information from those statements was provided to the Legislative Council separately.

In a five-page response issued Friday night, Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, accuses Branchflower and Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the investigation, of using the probe in a partisan attempt to "smear the governor by innuendo."

Van Flein says Branchflower's finding that Palin violated the ethics act is flawed because she received no monetary benefit from whatever actions she and her husband are accused of. He cited several prior ethics investigations.

"The common thread of all of these Ethics Act cases is money and the use of a government position to personally gain," Van Flein's statement says.

"Here, there is no accusation, no finding and no facts that money or financial gain to the Governor was involved in the decision to remove Monegan," the governor's attorney says. "There can be no ethics violations under these circumstances."

The McCain-Palin campaign also responded.

Because Branchflower's report does not recommend any particular penalty for Palin, it shows the investigation was outside the Legislature's authority, campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton said in a statement.

"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and the public interest by reporting to appropriate authorities the conduct of a threatening and abusive trooper," Stapleton said.

Stapleton and spokesman Ed O'Callaghan, a former New York prosecutor now working for the campaign in Alaska, have been meeting regularly with reporters in an effort to discredit the investigation.

The campaign also said Branchflower's finding that Palin broke state ethics laws is beyond the scope of the original investigation, which Stapleton and O'Callaghan said was to determine if she had a legitimate reason for firing Monegan.

In authorizing the investigation on July 28, the members of the legislative council voted "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 chairman of the Legislative Council, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he agreed with Branchflower's findings but wasn't ready to suggest there should be any consequences for the governor.

"We don't charge people, we don't try people as legislators," Elton said. Any further action or disciplinary measures, he said, would be up to Palin's executive branch, the attorney general or the state Personnel Board.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the report is flawed because Branchflower didn't take into account statements and other materials submitted earlier this week by Todd Palin and administration employees who earlier had resisted subpoenas.

Therriault said Todd Palin's written response indicates that Gov. Palin, at some point, urged her husband to drop his efforts against Wooten. That information goes to the heart of Branchflower's conclusion that the governor violated the ethics law, Therriault said.

Therriault said Branchflower was unable to consider those late-arriving materials "because we had this artificial deadline today."

"Why?" he continued. "Because we're in a political season."

Senate President Lyda Green said the report doesn't speak well for the governor.

"The problem with power is that people pay attention to it," the Wasilla Republican said. "And it's very easy to get beside yourself and use it in the wrong way.

"And we do have to leave personal business at home," she said.

Two other lawmakers said the Palins' actions were understandable.

"Who is going to blame Todd Palin for protecting his family?" said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole. " Not me."

Another member of the Legislative Council, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he thinks Branchflower's findings are wrong, and that Palin didn't violate the ethics act. "She and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family," Lynn said. "I think any normal person would do the same."

The release of Branchflower's 263-page report came after a unanimous vote of the 12-member Legislative Council, which authorized the inquiry last summer. The vote followed an all-day, closed-door meeting with Branchflower. Three members participated by telephone.

Branchflower also recommends the Legislature change the way complaints against peace officers such as troopers are handled. He says lawmakers should consider making it possible for people who file such complaints to get feedback about the status of their complaint and whatever action was taken about it.

The initial complaint against Wooten was filed by Gov. Palin's father, Chuck Heath, before she was elected governor in 2006. Branchflower says the inability of the family to get information about what was happening with the complaint was frustrating to them.

"I believe their frustration was real as was their skepticism about whether their complaints were being zealously investigated," Branchflower's report says. "The irony is that the complaints were taken very seriously, and a thorough investigation was underway. However, the law prevented the Troopers from giving them any feedback whatsoever."

The law should try to balance the need for confidentiality with a recognition that feedback to the filer of a complaint is also important, the report says.

(Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this article.)

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