ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The first serious scandal in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's administration, which some Alaskans call "Troopergate," has roots in a family feud. It erupted into public view on July 11, when the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee fired the state's top public safety official.
A special counsel hired by the Alaska Legislature is investigating whether there was any official misconduct in Palin's abrupt firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
The investigation is expected to take months, and the issue is whether Palin, her administration or members of her family improperly pressured Monegan to fire Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, Palin's sister's ex-husband, and whether Palin fired Monegan when that didn't happen.
Palin's sister, Molly McCann, and Wooten are divorced and battling in court over custody and visitation rights, but Palin has maintained that her decision to fire Monegan had nothing to do with Monegan's refusal to dump Wooten.
Before she was elected governor in December 2006, Palin had pushed for an investigation of a number of allegations involving Wooten, including using a Taser on his stepson, illegally shooting a moose and drunk driving. At one point, Palin and her husband, Todd, hired a private investigator.
Troopers did investigate, and Wooten was given a 10-day suspension that later was reduced to five days.
Palin initially said that after she took office, she broached the subject of her former brother-in-law with Monegan, her public safety commissioner, just once, when they were discussing her security detail. She said that she told Monegan that Wooten had made threats against her father and that he'd threatened to "bring me down." She said she thought that was the end of it.
A week after he was fired, however, Monegan said Palin's administration and Todd Palin, the governor's husband, had pressured him to fire Wooten. The pressure continued until a month or two before he was let go himself, Monegan said.
Todd Palin talked to him several times, Monegan said, and three officials in Palin's administration also put pressure on the department.
Monegan said that Palin herself brought up Wooten again in February as they were walking together to wish a state senator a happy birthday. Monegan said he told Palin that he had to keep her at arm's distance on the matter, and she agreed.
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 on the complaints the Palins, Palin's father and others had brought against the trooper.
The internal 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.
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.
In the call, which was routinely recorded by troopers, Palin aide Frank Bailey told the trooper lieutenant that Palin and her husband wanted to know why Wooten still had 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.
That contradicted Palin's earlier claims that there'd been no such pressure, but she said that she never asked Bailey to make that call and 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.
(Demer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)
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