A panel of Alaska legislators voted Friday to authorize subpoenas of the husband of Gov. Sarah Palin and a group of her aides to determine whether she improperly pressured a top state official to fire her former brother-in-law, an Alaska state trooper.
The decision by the Alaska Senate's Judiciary Committee gives an independent investigator, Stephen Branchflower, the Legislature's legal backing to seek testimony from Todd Palin and 11 gubernatorial aides. The House Judiciary Committee concurred, and Senate President Lyda Green, a bitter rival of Gov. Palin, indicated after the hearing that she would also back the move.
Branchflower said he had already amassed evidence showing that Todd Palin was a "principal critic" of trooper Michael Wooten, whose divorce from the governor's sister was bitter.
In July, Gov. Palin fired Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan, who had refused to sack Wooten. The trooper had already been disciplined with a five-day suspension for several infractions.
In 2005, before her successful run for governor, Sarah Palin had accused Wooten of threatening her father's life, demanding that state officials take action to remove him from the agency.
The state attorney general and a private lawyer representing the governor have warned they will go to court to try to quash subpoenas -- raising the possibility of a constitutional clash that could delay the fact-finding until after the presidential election.
A spokesman for Palin's vice presidential campaign declined to say what her next step would be. "We're not prepared to answer at this point," said aide Taylor Griffin.
Griffin said attorneys were reviewing the planned subpoena of Todd Palin, but the governor's husband had not received the legal summons as of late Friday.
Lawyers for other state aides "will make their own decisions," Griffin said.
Gov. Palin wants the inquiry into her handling of Monegan's dismissal to be handled by the Alaska Personnel Board, which consists of three Republican appointees.
Her private lawyer, Thomas V. Van Flein, said last week in a letter to Branchflower that the board was the proper forum and that the Legislature had only "limited investigative powers."
Van Flein did not return calls for comment.
Griffin and several Alaska Republicans also questioned whether Democratic state Sen. Hollis French should be helping to lead the probe, noting French's backing of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
"You've got strong Obama supporters leading it, and it risks becoming a political circus," Griffin said.
"It seems like we're getting into a pitched battle here," agreed state Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, one of two Republicans who opposed the authorization.
But a third Republican, state Sen. Charlie Huggins, joined two Democrats in approving the legal move. "Let's get the facts on the table," Huggins said.
Branchflower said Friday that evidence showed that Todd Palin had pressed Monegan earlier this year to revisit Wooten's case. Branchflower told the legislators that Monegan reviewed new evidence brought to him by Todd Palin but decided there was no reason to reconsider the case.
Branchflower told legislators during the hearing that "so far I have not received any evidence showing Mr. Palin posed the question directly that 'I want this guy fired.' "
The prosecutor added that he still needed subpoenas for Todd Palin and the aides to determine how hard the governor's office pushed for Wooten's dismissal and whether state officials acted improperly.
In an interview Friday with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, the Republican vice presidential candidate said that "once I got elected, [Wooten's] threats were he was going to bring down the governor and the governor's family."
She did not detail the new threats in the interview.
"I never pressured [Monegan] to hire or fire anybody," she told Gibson.
She said that Monegan was dismissed not because of his decision on Wooten but because he "wasn't meeting the goals I wanted met in that area of public service."