Monday, September 08, 2008

Palin Accused of Stonewalling as 7 Aides Refuse to Testify in 'Troopergate' Probe

Legislative Panel to Issue Subpoenas to Compel Testimony, Rejecting a Demand to Stop Inquiry into Alleged Abuse of Power by Palin in Firing of State's Top Cop; State Police Union Charges Palin Broke Confidentiality Rules by Disclosing Personnel Records of Former Brother-in-Law in Failed Effort to Get Him Kicked Off the Force

A state legislative committee will issue subpoenas this week after seven top aides to Governor Sarah Palin -- now the Republican vice-presidential nominee -- refused to testify before the panel about what they knew about the firing of former Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan (left). Monegan says he was fired because he had resisted pressure from Palin to fire Alaska State Police trooper Michael Wooten (right), Palin's former brother-in-law. Meanwhile, the union representing Wooten has filed an ethics complaint with the state attorney general's office, accusing the Palin administration of violating state employee confidentiality rules by disclosing Wooten's personnel records. (Photos: Anchorage Daily News)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. Monday, September 8, 2008)


Beginning this week, The 'Skeeter Bites Report is expanding its regular publication schedule to twice weekly, with new articles published every Monday and Thursday. The expansion is in response to numerous reader requests for more coverage of the presidential campaign and for more frequent international stories.



Just days after emerging from the Republican National Convention in Minnesota as the newly-minted GOP vice-presidential nominee, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin could find herself dragged down by a rapidly-exploding, Watergate-style scandal back home -- which could, in turn, derail John McCain's campaign to win the White House.

Amid mounting criticism of the governor for allegedly "stonewalling" an investigation of her controversial firing of the state's top cop, the Legislative Council, a joint House-Senate committee appointed by the Alaska Legislature to investigate the dismissal, will vote this week -- perhaps as early as today (Monday) -- to issue subpoenas after one of Palin's chief aides last week refused to testify before the panel.

At least six other top aides to the governor have also refused to testify.

Meanwhile, The union representing the state trooper at the center of the controversy, Michael Wooten, filed an ethics complaint Thursday with the state attorney general's office against Palin and members of her administration, charging an illegal breach of state employees confidentiality rules.

The Public Safety Employees Association charges that the Palin administration illegally "data-mined" Wooten's confidential personnel and workers' compensation files and disclosed sensitive information in an effort to jeopardize Wooten's job.


A private attorney hired by Palin to represent her administration has strongly hinted that he might sue to stop the Legislature's probe, on the grounds that it has no authority to investigate the firing. If he does, it could lead to a protracted court battle that would likely end up in the Alaska Supreme Court.

Such a confrontation would inevitably draw comparisons to the legal battle in the early 1970s between Congress and then-President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal over secret tape recordings made in the White House, a fight that was ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court -- and led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

The Legislature is expected to give the Legislative Council full subpoena power after Frank Bailey, the governor's director of boards and commissions, abruptly balked Wednesday at testifying before the panel, which is investigating whether Palin abused her gubernatorial authority in her dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan in July.

Monegan has accused Palin of firing him in part because he had refused to fire Wooten, who is Palin's former brother-in-law and whom the Palin family considers "dangerous" and a "loose cannon" following a bitter divorce from Molly McCann, the governor's sister.

Bailey backed out from giving testimony at the advice of his lawyer after Thomas Van Flein, the attorney representing Palin and others in the governor's office, challenged the Legislature's authority to investigate her firing of Monegan, insisting that it is a personnel matter that properly should be handled administratively.

Bailey is the seventh top aide to the governor who has refused to testify before the council. All seven are considered by lawmakers to be "key witnesses" in the investigation and all seven are expected to be issued subpoenas to compel their testimony.

The other six are Dianne Keisel, a manager at the state human resources department; Annette Kreitzer, the governor's commissioner of administration; Nicki Neal, director of personnel and labor relations; Kris Perry, manager of the governor's Anchorage office; Karen Rehfeld, the governor's budget director; and Brad Thompson, manager of state risk management.

Perry was also the manager of Palin's 2006 gubernatorial campaign.


State Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage), chairman of the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee and the manager of the council's probe said, however, that Palin herself will not be subpoenaed -- a gesture aimed at calming what has become an increasingly rancorous constitutional standoff between the Legislature and the governor in what has become known in the local and national media as "Troopergate."

"We're trying to de-escalate the situation. We just want the truth, clear the air," French said. However, the lawmakers still want their chief investigator to interview Palin.

Bailey's attorney, Greg Grebe, acknowledged Thursday that he advised his client not to testify before the Legislative Council, telling the Anchorage Daily News that he learned that the governor's office was contesting the Legislature's jurisdiction.

"It's my understanding that they believe the jurisdiction [rests] properly with the state Personnel Department. I can't make a judgment or a call on that," Grebe said. He insisted, however, that once the jurisdictional dispute is settled, Bailey would "fully cooperate" with the investigation.

"I don't want him [Bailey] to be a political football being used by one side or the other and being inconvenienced in all of this hoopla," Grebe added. "I want it done once and I want it done right."


Van Flein argued that only the Alaska Personnel Board has the authority to look into what he considers a personnel matter involving the governor and wants the Legislature's probe stopped.

The Alaska Personnel Board is a three-member administrative panel, all of whom are appointed by the governor for six-year terms.

One board member, Deborah English of Anchorage, was reappointed by Palin in January, according to the Alaska state government Web site. Board member Laura Plenert of Ketchikan, is up for reappointment in 2010; the third member, Alfred Tamagni, Sr. of Anchorage, is up for reappointment in 2012.

All three were appointed by Palin's Republican predecessor, Frank Murkowski. The state's Web site did not list the board members' party affiliations, but under state law, no more than two board members can be of the same party.

"We have been retained to represent the Governor and the Governor's Office relative to the Legislative Council's investigation into the termination of Mr. Monegan," Van Flein wrote in a letter to Steve Branchflower, the independent counsel hired by the Legislature to look into the firing.

Van Flein also asked the committee to provide copies of all witness statements, documents and other materials collected in the course of the investigation.


But French, a former state prosecutor, vowed that the panel's work will continue and challenged Palin's motivation to have the investigation halted.

"Governor Palin has repeatedly stated that she has nothing to hide and that she and her administration will cooperate fully with this investigation," French wrote in a response letter to Van Flein. "Is your client aware that you seem to be challenging the Legislature's jurisdiction?"

The Alaska state constitution is silent on whether the Legislature has oversight authority over the actions of the executive branch. But the constitution bars the governor from authorizing "any action or proceeding against the Legislature" other than to veto bills passed by the lawmakers.

French also rejected Van Flein's request for documents and said he had instructed Branchflower not to provide them. "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 lawmakers also decided to move up the date for Branchflower to complete the probe and issue his report, from October 31 to October 10, to avoid the appearance of a last-minute "October Surprise" impacting the November 4 presidential election, according to state Representative Jay Ramras (R-Fairbanks), chairman of the Alaska House Judiciary Committee.

In an interview with ABC News, French said that the investigator's report, once it is published, was "likely to be damaging to the governor’s administration. The governor first issued a blanket denial, but now she’s had to back down and that’s a problem. She has a credibility problem."


At the heart of the controversy is Wooten's bitter divorce from McCann and its subsequent fallout. The governor has accused Wooten of threatening her father, Charles Heath, of using a Taser stun gun on his stepson and of driving his patrol car while intoxicated.

"I feel strongly that Wooten is a loose cannon," Palin wrote to the state police in April 2005, when she was mayor of her hometown of Wasilla. "He's a ticking time bomb, as others describe him, and I am afraid his actions do not merely reflect poorly on the state, but his actions may cause someone terrible harm."

Court papers on file in the 2004 divorce and custody battle between Wooten and McCann show that on one occasion, McCann sought a restraining order against Wooten for domestic violence, alleging that he was a threat to her children -- a charge Wooten denied.

An Alaska Family Court judge subsequently dismissed the domestic violence complaint, but then issued an order limiting contact between the couple. Wooten was subsequently suspended from the state police briefly in 2005 for using the Taser gun on his then-ten-year-old stepson and for illegally shooting a moose.


In an interview broadcast Friday on CNN, Wooten acknowledged that he "made some mistakes" and is "feeling stress" from having his problems with the Palin family "splashed across the national news media."

Wooten denied allegations that he made threats against his ex-wife's father, that he holds no ill will toward the governor and that he is "actually excited" by her high-profile role as the GOP's vice-presidential nominee.

Palin adamantly insists that Wooten had nothing to do with her dismissal of Monegan, saying that she fired him because she wanted the state police to "go in a new direction" with new leadership and denied that either she or any of her staff had taken any action to try to persuade Monegan to fire Wooten.

Yet earlier this month, Palin was forced to acknowledge that half a dozen members of her administration had made more than two dozen telephone calls to state officials on the matter, after telephone-company records documenting the calls were made public. Nonetheless, the governor insisted she was not aware of the communications until after the records' disclosure.


In its ethics complaint, the Public Safety Employees Association asked the state attorney general's office to investigate whether the Palin administration violated rules protecting the confidentiality of state employees' personnel records.

The union charges that the either the governor herself or her aides illegally "data-mined" Wooten's confidential personnel and workers' compensation records and disclosed information in an effort to get Wooten fired.

The complaint includes a tape recording of a telephone conversation about Wooten between Bailey and a state police commander. On the tape, Bailey told Lieutenant Rodney Dial that the governor and her husband, Todd "are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn't this -- why is this guy [Wooten] still representing the department?' He's a horrible recruiting tool, you know."

Bailey also accused Wooten of "lying on his application" and also of allegedly making a false workers' compensation claim, according to the tape.

The recording shows Dial responding to Bailey by asking, "Frank, where did you get that information from?" Such information about state employees "a lot of times is extremely confidential."

To which Bailey replied: "Well, I'm a little bit reluctant to say," the tape shows.


This isn't the first time that Palin has been surrounded by controversy over her dismissal of a police chief. ABC News reported on its Web site Thursday that the Republican vice-presidential nominee is also facing questions over why she fired the longtime police chief of her hometown of Wasilla shortly after she took office as mayor in 1997.

Former Wasilla Police Chief Irl Stambaugh filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit in federal court against Palin in 1997, accusing the then-mayor of firing him because he "stepped on the toes" of Palin's campaign contributors, including bar owners and the National Rifle Association -- of which Palin is a lifetime member, according to Stambaugh's attorney, William Jermain.

Jermain said Stambaugh tried to move up the closing time of Wasilla's bars three hours from the 5 a.m. closing time allowed under state law to 2 a.m. following a spate of drunk-driving accidents and arrests. "His crackdown on that practice by the bars was not appreciated by [then-Mayor Palin] and that was one reason she terminated Irl," ABC News quoted Jermain as saying.

In his lawsuit, Stambaugh also alleged that his stand on restricting concealed weapons upset the NRA. A federal judge later ruled the mayor, under town law, had the right to fire the chief for any reason she wanted, the network reported.


In a blistering editorial published Friday, the Anchorage Daily News accused Palin of "stonewalling" the Legislature's attempt to get the bottom of allegations.

"This is not an open and transparent attempt to establish Governor Palin's accountability," the editorial said. "It is an attempt to drag out the investigation until after voters decide the fate of her vice-presidential bid."

As a result, the newspaper said, "the Troopergate allegations hang over Palin's future and cloud her candidacy for vice president."

The newspaper called on Palin to honor her pledge to cooperate with the Legislature's investigation -- and for the Legislature to grant its investigators subpoena power to compel Bailey and other witnesses to testify if the governor doesn't keep her promise.

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Volume III, Number 53
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.