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Palin ethics lapse cited

Times Staff Writers

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin violated ethics laws and abused her power as governor in pressing to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper, an independent legislative investigation concluded Friday.

In a report whose release was the subject of a high-stakes political showdown that went all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, investigator Stephen Branchflower documented that former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was subjected to a veritable barrage of demands from Palin, her husband and her staff to fire the trooper, Mike Wooten, whom they saw as unfit for the job. Wooten had been involved in a bitter divorce and custody battle with Palin’s sister.

The report found that his refusal to fire the trooper was “likely a contributing factor” in Monegan’s termination in July, but it also concluded that the governor’s decision was “a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority” to hire and fire department heads.

Though the findings partially vindicate Palin’s claims that she had legitimate reasons for firing Monegan, their suggestion that she used her husband and staff to conduct a campaign against a state employee in what was perceived by some as a personal vendetta could damage her ability to portray herself as a reform-minded, experienced executive ready to step into the White House as John McCain’s vice president.

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The Democratic Party was quick to use the report as fresh ammunition. “Gov. Palin has violated Alaskans’ trust,” said Patti Higgins, Alaska’s state Democratic Party chairwoman. “I hope that in light of this finding, Gov. Palin will stop playing partisan politics to the detriment of Alaska’s future.”

Palin has insisted that Monegan was fired because he flouted her plans to limit spending in his department. Todd Palin has admitted he made several inquiries about Wooten because of concerns that the trooper had behaved improperly, by driving under the influence of alcohol, shooting a moose without a permit, threatening Palin’s father and striking his own stepson with a low-level electric Taser.

“We feel the governor is vindicated. . . . She had the authority and acted with the proper authority” in removing Monegan, Meghan Stapleton, a McCain-Palin campaign spokeswoman, said in an interview.

She said neither the governor nor her husband had done anything “but what the state dictates” and had legitimate concerns about Wooten’s behavior. “Todd will do what he has to do to protect his family and the community against an abusive trooper,” Stapleton said.

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Yet the report documents a clear campaign within the governor’s office to get rid of Wooten, despite Monegan’s repeated warnings that the state was risking a lawsuit as a result of the contacts because Wooten had already been investigated and disciplined in connection with the same complaints.

These contacts came not only from the governor herself -- who spoke to Monegan personally, by telephone and by e-mail -- but from her chief of staff, several other senior staff members and even the state attorney general.

The report establishes for the first time that Palin deliberately set up Todd Palin to handle communications over the Wooten matter after Monegan warned her it was inappropriate for her to be making such contacts herself.

The governor and her husband were motivated by “passion and frustration,” Monegan testified. “They wanted severe discipline, probably termination, and . . . I had this ominous feeling that I may not be long for this job if I didn’t somehow respond accordingly.”

Branchflower concluded in his report that these contacts were a breach of ethics and an abuse of the governor’s office.

“The evidence supports the conclusion that Gov. Palin, at the least, engaged in ‘official action’ by her inaction, if not her active participation or assistance to her husband in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired,” the investigation concluded, adding that “there is evidence of her active participation.”

The report found that Palin “knowingly, as that term is defined in the [ethics] statutes, permitted Todd Palin to use the governor’s office and the resources of the governor’s office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired.” The report also said that Todd Palin at one point asked to see Wooten’s personnel file.

The state Ethics Act holds that public officials have a duty of public trust that prevents them from attempting to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action.

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The report made no specific recommendations on penalties or how to proceed.

Civil penalties range, theoretically, from impeachment by the Legislature to a reprimand or a fine of up to $5,000 by the state personnel board, but most legislative sources thought it unlikely any action would be taken.

“We have the power to investigate. We have the power to change law based on the investigation. We don’t have the power to convene a grand jury, for example, and seek an indictment,” Sen. Kim Elton, the Democratic chairman of the legislative council, said in a telephone interview. “We understood at the beginning that we were on a fact-finding mission, but we don’t have the power to prosecute.”

Twelve members of the Legislature’s 14-member Legislative Council, the interim body that meets when the Legislature is not in session, deliberated in closed session over the findings for most of the day before voting unanimously to release the 263-page document publicly. Two members voted by telephone.

The council is made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats.

Several Republican legislators had launched a legal effort to halt the inquiry, which they said had become tainted by politics after Palin’s nomination to the GOP ticket.

“The whole thing was turned into a circus act,” complained Republican Rep. Bob Lynn. “Sarah Palin and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family. These people were threatened by Trooper Wooten. They did what any reasonable person would do -- protect their family.”

Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican who has often clashed with Palin, said further action would be up to the state personnel board, which is carrying out a separate inquiry.

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“I would not want that report to my credit,” she said of the findings against Palin. “The problem with power is that it’s very easy to use in the wrong way. We have to leave personal business at home.”

Monegan said he believed that the Palins were motivated out of emotion stemming from family issues, a phenomenon he said he had encountered frequently as a law enforcement officer.

He said the couple were especially consternated with his response to their complaint that Wooten had shot a female moose without a permit.

Upon investigation, he said, he learned that Palin’s sister had a permit for the moose and was present when it was shot. In addition, he said, Gov. Palin’s father had butchered the moose.

“I pointed out that there are people also involved in this incident that theoretically could also be charged,” Monegan told Todd Palin. “And he said, ‘I didn’t want that. I only want Wooten charged.’ ”

Gov. Palin called a few days later. “The sole topic was Michael Wooten,” Monegan said, and he told her the same thing he had told her husband.

The last direct conversation he had with the governor on the subject, he said, was on Feb. 13, 2007, on the way to a birthday celebration for a state senator.

“We were walking down the stairs, the governor mentioned to me, she says, ‘I’d like to talk to you about Wooten.’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, I need you to keep an arm’s length at this -- on this issue. And if you have further complaints on him, I can deal with Todd on it.’

“And she goes, ‘That’s a better idea.’ ”

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charles.piller@latimes.com

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Piller reported from Anchorage and Murphy from Seattle.


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