Palin Faces a Legal Showdown Back Home

Posted September 2, 2008 at 7:01pm

Before she ever sets foot in the White House, the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in the coming weeks may face a subpoena to testify before a state Senate committee investigating alleged abuses of executive power.

Late Tuesday, Palin announced that she would ask the state Personnel Board to investigate her conduct.

Democrats have alleged that former police commissioner Walt Monegan was dismissed because he failed to fire trooper Mike Wooten, Palin’s former brother-in-law, who had been disciplined for Tasering an 11-year-old and illegal hunting. Wooten has also been involved in a divorce and custody battle with Palin’s sister, including allegations that he made threats against other members of Palin’s family.

Palin’s office has acknowledged that some of her staff members and her husband, Todd, contacted Monegan about Wooten, but she denies applying any pressure on Monegan to fire him. A summary of events released by the McCain campaign Aug. 30 flatly denies that Wooten’s case had any effect on her decision to fire Monegan. “Governor Palin dismissed Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan because of an honest disagreement over budget priorities — that’s it,” the McCain campaign wrote. “The allegation that Governor Palin retaliated against Commissioner Monegan for not firing Trooper Wooten is cut from whole cloth. [Gov. Palin] did nothing wrong and has nothing to hide.”

But the chairman of the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee is demanding that Palin provide testimony to an investigator that the legislature hired to look into the matter and has threatened subpoenas if she does not comply.

A lawyer hired by the state Attorney General’s Office to represent Palin wrote to the investigator Friday — the same day Palin was tapped as the GOP vice presidential nominee — suggesting that the legislature lacks the authority to investigate the matter and that the proper investigative body would be the state Personnel Board. The lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, asked the legislature’s investigator to provide “a copy of all witness statements you have … all documentary evidence you have, any witness list you have, and a copy of the complaint or other charging document upon which you are basing your investigation.”

State Sen. Hollis French, who was appointed by the legislature to manage the investigation, replied Monday, essentially telling Van Flein to forget it. The Personnel Board investigates complaints brought under state ethics laws, French wrote, but “the Legislature, of course, has its own separate powers of investigation. I hope you are not suggesting that the legislature does not have the authority to investigate potential violations of law by members of the Executive Branch.”

French said he directed the investigator not to share witness statements with Van Flein, arguing that “it would be highly unusual for an investigator to share information with one of the targets of the investigation.”

French said the investigator requested an interview with Palin but has not yet received a response. “I am requesting that you set a September date for the Governor’s deposition … by the close of business this Friday,” French wrote. “Delays in witness interviews will jeopardize the timely conclusion of this investigation. Indeed, delays would cause me to convene a meeting of the Judiciary Committee and ask that subpoenas be considered.”

The McCain/Palin campaign did not reply to questions about whether Palin would voluntarily provide a deposition, and her attorney did not return calls requesting comment.

The legislative investigation was approved by a unanimous vote of a joint House/Senate committee that essentially manages the administrative functions of the legislature. The committee — known as the Legislative Council — which consists of nine Republicans and five Democrats, entered a contract with Stephen Branchflower for $45,000 (plus per diem for travel days and other expenses) to investigate “the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch.”

The contract stipulates that Branchflower must provide a report to the legislature by Oct. 31.

Under the unusual structure of the Alaska Senate, which is ruled by a bipartisan coalition, French, a Democrat, is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Democrats are outnumbered on the panel three to two.

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, said that several weeks ago the committee had scheduled a meeting to issue subpoenas in the case but canceled it when it appeared Palin’s administration would cooperate with the investigation. “This was going on way before Sarah Palin was picked to be vice president,” Wielechowski said. When the Legislative Council approved the investigation at the end of July and set the Oct. 31 deadline, “she wasn’t running for anything.”

Palin said Tuesday that she had asked the Personnel Board to investigate the case and said her concerns about Wooten’s behavior had nothing to do with Monegan’s dismissal.

“Last night, I initiated a proceeding before the state personnel board because that is the agency charged by law with addressing complaints about hiring and firing matters, and ethical issues in general, involving the Governor,” Palin said in a statement. “It is important to note that no one has actually filed a complaint against me, including Mr. Monegan, who would have had an obligation to notify the Personnel Board if he believed there had been misconduct in connection with his replacement.”

Wielechowski said that the state Personnel Board is appointed by the governor and that Palin appeared to be making “some sort of an effort to take this matter out of the legislature’s hands and put it in the hands of a body that is appointed by the governor.”

Other Democrats suggested that Palin may simply be trying to drag out the proceedings so the final report will not be issued before Election Day.