Politics & Government

Alaska issues new 'troopergate' report, exonerating Palin

A new report, released on the eve of Election Day, clears Gov. Sarah Palin of any ethics violations in her firing of her public safety commissioner and directly contradicts earlier findings of an investigator for the Legislature.

The new state Personnel Board-sanctioned investigation is the second into whether Palin violated state ethics law in firing her public safety commissioner earlier this year.

The board is set up in state law as an independent agency to hear complaints of violations of state ethics law brought against executive branch employees. Members are appointed by the governor, though Palin only had a role in appointing one of the three current members.

Both investigations found that Palin was within her rights to fire Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.

But the new report says the Legislature's investigator was wrong to conclude that Palin abused her power by allowing aides and her husband, Todd, to pressure Monegan and others to dismiss her ex-brother-in-law, trooper Mike Wooten. Palin was accused of firing Monegan because Wooten, the target of a series of complaints from the governor and her family, stayed on the job.

Timothy Petumenos, an Anchorage lawyer, conducted the investigation. He was hired as independent counsel for the Personnel Board to examine several complaints against Palin.

The "troopergate" matter became sharply politicized after Palin joined the ticket of Republican presidential candidate John McCain in late August.

Palin, after first promising to cooperate, never gave a statement to the special counsel hired by the Legislature, but she gave three hours of sworn testimony to Petumenos.

As for the last-minute timing — Petumenos gave out his report hours before the polls opened on Palin's bid to become vice president — the investigator said it wasn't ready until now.

"If you think this is being done to favor the governor politically, it certainly would have been much more favorable for her to receive this days before now," Petumenos said.

He'd hoped to release it Thursday, but it wasn't finished, he said. Personnel Board chair Debra English got her copy at about 4 p.m. Sunday.

The board voted to accept the report Monday, ending the investigation.

Petumenos finished his report on a separate ethics complaint against Palin -- also released Monday -- on Oct. 15. That one, which involved a claim of political favoritism in hiring a state worker, wasn't unveiled earlier because the people involved didn't waive their right to confidentiality until this weekend, English said.

The McCain campaign quickly put out a statement by Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein.

"The Governor is grateful that this investigation has provided a fair and impartial review of this matter and upholds the Governor's ability to take measures when necessary to ensure that Alaskans have the best possible team working to serve them," the statement said.

The new report says Palin, in her testimony, denies Monegan's versions of events; specifically, she says two conversations that Monegan described having with her about Wooten never took place.

One was a phone call Monegan says Palin made to him in January 2007 in which she complained that Wooten, who went through a nasty divorce from Palin's sister, had only received "a slap on the wrist" from his superiors. The other was a conversation he described having the next month with the governor while they were on their way to wish happy birthday to a state senator. Monegan said Palin brought up Wooten once again.

"Both of those conversations are denied, in their entirety, by the governor," Petumenos said.

Reached Monday afternoon, Monegan said he hadn't yet had a chance to read the new report but was disappointed it contradicted the earlier investigation.

He said the governor is wrong when she claims they never spoke about Wooten.

"It happened," Monegan said.

Both Monegan and Palin made their statements under oath.

John Cyr, executive director of the troopers union, called Monegan "scrupulously honest."

"For the governor to suggest or to outright say that he has lied about this is at best a mischaracterization," he said.

Petumenos combed through tens of thousands of e-mails, including four sent by Palin to Monegan in which she alludes to Wooten. But there's no independent verification of the meetings that Monegan remembers, and even if there were, Petumenos says, his findings would be the same.

Petumenos wrote that he was concerned about the use of private e-mail accounts for state business by the governor and some of her staff and questioned whether he was able to retrieve all the pertinent correspondence he needed. Palin had used a Yahoo account until it was hacked.

Petumenos concluded that the Legislature's special counsel, former state prosecutor Steve Branchflower, used the wrong state law as the basis for his conclusions and also misconstrued the evidence.

"(Branchflower) assumed that the governor knew about things and should have stopped them, when the evidence we induced is that she didn't know about them in the first place," Petumenos said at a Monday afternoon press conference.

Petumenos said that Palin told him she had no idea what Todd was up to. He said she didn't know that Todd met with Monegan about Wooten in the governor's office in January 2007, soon after Palin took office. At the meeting, Todd presented a stack of documents with concerns about Wooten.

The Palins have argued that Wooten was a loose cannon who Tasered his stepson, drank beer in his patrol car, shot a moose on his wife's permit and threatened Palin's father. They say their complaints about him were justified.

Was there anything wrong in what Todd did?

"There is no prohibition in the law for a private citizen to make inquiries, to express discontent, to give opinions," Petumenos said. "If someone wants to make an exception for the spouse of a high official, then they need to change the law."

Branchflower had found that Palin didn't act to stop others, including Todd, from pressing for Wooten's dismissal, and that amounted to an abuse of power.

But Petumenos wrote that Branchflower wrongly relied on a portion of statute that outlined the overall legislative intent. He said violations of the ethics act instead must be based on one of eight specific prohibitions.

"The legal analysis of the Branchflower report is completely wrong," Petumenos said.

Some key legislators dispute that.

State Sen. Kim Elton, chairman of the bipartisan Legislative Council, said Branchflower's report was solid and the work that went into it was meticulous.

"I think that the reading of the law in the Branchflower report is absolutely spot on," said Elton, a Democrat from Juneau. The council approved the hiring of Branchflower and authorized last month's release of the legislative report, but never voted on the report's conclusions.

"If the governor brought inappropriate pressure upon Walt Monegan, she violated the ethics law. If she allowed others to do it and didn't stop it, she also violated the ethics law," Elton said.

Palin herself asked the three-member Personnel Board to determine whether her dismissal of Monegan violated the ethics law, but that was after the bipartisan Legislative Council had already approved its own investigation.

Petumenos' investigation covered several related complaints.

The troopers union -- the Public Safety Employees Association -- complained to the board that Palin and others improperly disclosed confidential personnel and workers' compensation records of Wooten, and that the governor and others engaged in continuous, systematic efforts to have Wooten fired. Petumenos recommended the union complaint be dismissed.

Monegan had asked the board for a hearing to clear his name but Petumenos determined the Personnel Board wasn't the proper place to air such a case.

"... I think we just have to move on with life, I guess," Monegan said. "Am I interested in suing anybody? No."

Regarding the Personnel Board, Palin reappointed English, who lives in Anchorage, in January. The other two members, Laura Plenert of Ketchikan and Al Tamagni of Anchorage, were already on the board when Palin took office in 2006 and their terms don't expire until 2010 and 2012. The members are volunteers. Plenert is a registered Republican; English and Tamagni are undeclared.