Barely two weeks after Sarah Palin had been sworn in as Alaska’s governor, in December 2006, then-Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan’s executive secretary got a confusing phone call from Palin’s office: The first gentleman would like to schedule a meeting with her boss.
“I was not familiar with the term ‘first gentleman,’ or didn’t hear her correctly, so I kept asking her, ‘Who?’ ” the secretary, Cassandra Byrne, testified recently. “And she eventually said, ‘Todd Palin.’ ”
The appointment was fixed, and Monegan arrived in the governor’s office to find himself alone with the brawny, popular fisherman and snowmobile champion, who was sitting at a 12-foot-long conference table, surrounded by stacks of documents. One of the documents had the logo and letterhead of Monegan’s own Department of Public Safety.
The subject, it turned out, was Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, who had been involved in a messy divorce with the governor’s sister. The Palins, Todd made clear, wanted Wooten fired for a long record of behavior they saw as inappropriate for a police officer.
“He kept using the term ‘we.’ ‘We went to go talk to, we, we.’ And so I assumed it was he and Sarah, of course,” Monegan testified.
The meeting “made me a little uncomfortable,” he said. “We’re having it in the governor’s office, and he’s not the governor. I think he was trying to use state trappings to handle a personal issue.”
Todd Palin would become a familiar voice for the Palin administration. Independent legislative investigator Stephen Branchflower’s report on Monegan’s subsequent firing -- in part, the investigation found, because he wouldn’t fire Wooten -- contains an exhaustive record of Todd Palin’s frequent and intimate presence in the day-to-day workings of his wife’s administration.
Testimony compiled as part of the inquiry, and The Times’ own review of e-mail logs from the administration, show that Todd Palin was a fixture in the governor’s office, spending about half of his time there. He attended Cabinet meetings that are supposed to be closed to the public, and was copied on a wide variety of high-level government correspondence on issues such as contract negotiations with the police officers union, Alaska Native issues and the privatization of a dairy near the Palins’ hometown of Wasilla.
A campaign issue
The presence of the governor’s husband at Cabinet sessions and in meetings over the state budget has become an issue in Palin’s campaign as the Republican vice presidential nominee, raising the question of whether Todd Palin would become the kind of activist spouse that Hillary Clinton proved to be during the first years of her husband’s administration.
“It’s almost as if he’s behaving as a lobbyist,” said Andree McLeod, an Anchorage activist who has sued to obtain the full text of government e-mails sent to the governor’s husband. On Friday, she won a temporary restraining order requiring the Palin administration to preserve copies of messages sent under the governor’s private e-mail address.
“Here he is involved in a lot of high-level meetings, and he’s really involved in a lot of policy. He’s involved with mining interests; he’s involved with Native corporations,” McLeod said. “I’m very curious as to who he’s representing.”
But Todd Palin last week defended his role in the administration, arguing in written testimony to the Branchflower inquiry that he was being singled out for scrutiny because he is married to the state’s first female governor.
“I have heard criticism that I am too involved with my wife’s administration. My wife and I are very close. We are each other’s best friend. I have helped her at every stage in her career the best I can, and she has helped me,” Palin wrote.
“Few complained when Nancy Murkowski helped [former Gov.] Frank Murkowski. Frank Murkowski even issued a memo telling everyone his wife was his closest advisor, and would travel wherever he went,” Palin said. “It is unfair to apply a double standard against my wife, just because she is the state’s first female governor.”
But according to the legislative inquiry, the “first gentleman’s” influence was so pervasive that senior staff members began to be uneasy about his constant phone calls about Wooten. Former legislative director John Bitney, the report said, took several calls a day from Todd Palin on his cellphone.
“Todd . . . would call me about once a day, sometimes two or three times a day, just on a myriad of things” -- very often about Wooten -- Bitney testified.
“You were kind of caught in the middle here?” Branchflower asked him.
“Yeah, but I didn’t want to tell him I wasn’t going to do anything . . . I didn’t think that was appropriate, but I didn’t want to tell Todd that.”
An unofficial regular
Bitney ended up losing his job. No reason was given at the time, but Bitney believes it was connected to the fact that he had an affair with, and later married, the wife of a close friend of the Palins’.
A variety of top-level administration officials told Branchflower that Palin was a frequent presence in the governor’s office, but many have said he was often there to help baby-sit the couple’s youngest child.
But Atty. Gen. Talis J. Colberg, during his interview with Branchflower, was unable to explain the presence of the governor’s husband at Cabinet meetings.
“If someone said that they have seen him at more than one or two Cabinet meetings, would that give you pause?” Branchflower asked.
“That would give me pause, but it’s possible,” Colberg responded.
“Are Cabinet meetings open to the public?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Is Todd Palin a state employee, to your knowledge?”
“Do you know why he was allowed to remain there?”
Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign, said the answer to his involvement was simple: Palin often asked her husband, who was at home with the children, to print out government e-mails so she could read them at home at night.
“Todd has played an appropriate and similar role to that played by the spouses of dozens of governors throughout the country,” Griffin said.
Todd Palin received copies of e-mails dealing with a bill on parental consent for abortion; a radio talk-show host “hammering” a political opponent of the governor; discussions about the police union, which was involved in contentious contract negotiations with the state; invitations to legislators for bill signings; and a wide variety of e-mails about Andrew Halcro, a longtime irritant to the Palin administration who ran unsuccessfully against Palin for governor in 2006.
Todd Palin also got a copy of the celebratory e-mail that circulated through the governor’s office about talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. The new Alaska governor, Limbaugh had declared, was “a babe.”
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.