Gov. Palin Cited for Ethics Violation
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin abused her authority and broke state ethics laws by sanctioning a campaign to pressure subordinates to fire her former brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten, according to an investigative report released by state lawmakers.
The report found that Palin violated a statute of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, which says "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust."
The punishment for violating the ethics act ranges from sanctions to several thousand dollars in fines that can be imposed by the state ethics board. But the immediate consequence is political, tarnishing Palin’s claim to be an “ethics reformer” while she runs as the Republican vice presidential nominee.
The 263-page report paints a picture of Palin allowing her power as governor to be used to carry out a family feud against Wooten, who was involved in a bitter divorce and child custody dispute with Palin's sister.
The investigation centered on whether Palin, her husband Todd, and several of her senior aides pressured Public Safety Commissioner Monegan to fire Wooten. In July, Palin fired Monegan, who then publicly blamed his dismissal on his refusal to fire Wooten.
Palin denied that she was retaliating against Monegan and initially welcomed the legislative inquiry, which was approved unanimously by the Republican-dominated Legislative Council, which then hired former prosecutor Steve Branchflower to head the probe.
In his findings, which the Council released Friday night, Branchflower said Monegan’s resistance to the pressure to fire Wooten played a part in Palin's decision to terminate him as the state's top police official, but that her firing decision was nonetheless lawful.
"I find that, although Walt Monegan’s refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Gov. Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety," Branchflower said. "In spite of that, Gov. Palin’s firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads."
However, Branchflower said the pressure on subordinates from the governor’s office to fire Wooten violated state ethics laws.
"Compliance with the code of ethics is not optional," Branchflower said. "It is an individual responsibility imposed by law, and any effort to benefit a personal interest through official action is a violation of that trust. ... The term 'benefit' is very broadly defined, and includes anything that is to the person's advantage or personal self-interest."
Branchflower questioned, too, the truthfulness of the repeated assertion from Gov. Palin and members of her family that Wooten represented a physical threat to their safety.
Instead, Branchflower said the "evidence presented has been inconsistent with such claims of fear," adding:
"I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palin's real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons."
Branchflower also noted resistance to his investigation from senior Palin aides, including Attorney General Talis Colberg, who "failed to substantially comply with my Aug. 6, 2008, written request to Gov. Sarah Palin for information about the case in the form of e-mails."
Colberg filed a lawsuit against Branchflower two weeks ago in an effort to block him from subpoenaing state officials in the case. An Alaska Superior Court Judge tossed out the lawsuit.
Branchflower’s report concluded that the effort to oust Wooten was spearheaded by Todd Palin, who calls himself “First Dude” and received support in his anti-Wooten campaign from the governor.
"Gov. Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: To get Trooper Michael Wooten fired," the report said. "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, to get trooper Wooten fired."
According to the report, "She knowingly, as that term is defined in the above 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."
Although Palin welcomed the probe in July, she turned against it after John McCain picked her in late August to be his running mate. The McCain-Palin campaign dispatched a team of operatives to Alaska in an effort to block or discredit the investigation.
That effort continued after the report was issued Friday. Meghan Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, criticized the report, saying “Obama supporters” wrote it.
"The report illustrates what we've known all along: this was a partisan-led inquiry run by Obama supporters and the Palins were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior," Stapleton said.
"Lacking evidence to support the original Monegan allegation, the Legislative Council seriously overreached, making a tortured argument to find fault without basis in law or fact."
Late Thursday, the McCain-Palin campaign released its own report concluding that Palin acted ethically and lawfully when she fired Monegan.
Palin’s reasons for firing Monegan, however, have evolved over the past several months. At first she said she wanted to take the department that Monegan headed in a "different direction." In recent weeks, Palin and campaign officials said Monegan was fired for insubordination.
Banchflower's report was released following a six-hour executive session where Alaska state lawmakers huddled behind closed doors and received a briefing on the findings from Branchflower.
Branchflower provided lawmakers with more than 1,000 pages of supporting documents; including internal e-mails and memoranda he obtained during the course of his investigation.
The Legislative Council, which is made up of a majority of Republicans, voted unanimously to release the report publicly.
The existing public record shows that Sarah Palin was deeply involved in the dispute with Wooten before she became governor. She filed several formal complaints against her ex-brother-in-law over three years alleging he engaged in illegal behavior while on duty and had threatened her family.
Branchflower’s report said that after Palin was sworn in as governor she permitted her husband, Todd Palin, to use the resources of her office to continue this effort to get Wooten fired and that she failed in "her authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates.”
In a 25-page affidavit released Wednesday, Todd Palin admitted that he was obsessed with getting Wooten fired.
"I had hundreds of conversations with my family, with friends, with colleagues, and with just about everyone I could -- including government officials,” Todd Palin wrote. “In fact, I talked about Wooten so much over the years that my wife told me to stop talking about it with her."
Branchflower said he did not factor in Todd Palin's sworn affidavit into the final version of his report because Palin's attorney filed it late.
Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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