By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News
State legislators are talking about hiring a special investigator to dig into the circumstances surrounding Gov. Sarah Palin’s firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
“That’s the only thing I can think of, if you want to get to the truth and be unbiased,” said Senate President Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican. “Otherwise, speculation just continues.”
Green, who has sparred with Palin politically, said the investigator would be someone unconnected to both the Legislature and the governor’s office. She said the investigation would cover the circumstances surrounding the firing — including accusations that Palin had pressured Monegan to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, who is the ex-husband of Palin’s sister.
Green said the Legislature could move to hire an investigator as soon as early next week. She said she’s been hearing from other senators who want answers.
Senate Judiciary chairman Hollis French said he agrees with Green that “there is a problem in the (Palin) administration” and legislators should look into the firing.
“I know we’re going to look at it. We’re trying to figure out right now what method we use,” the Anchorage Democrat said.
A special investigator isn’t the only possibility. State House Judiciary Committee chairman Jay Ramras said he’s going to meet with French about possibly holding a legislative hearing to find out what’s going on.
“And see whether it’s appropriate to (have) an early confirmation hearing on the new commissioner and what exactly was not correct about the mission of the Department of Public Safety,” the Fairbanks Republican said.
The governor says she dismissed Monegan and replaced him with Kenai Police Chief Chuck Kopp last week because she wants a new direction for the department.
House Speaker John Harris said legislators have asked him about having a hearing.
“I’ve told them they have that authority if they think there is a reason for it,” the Valdez Republican said. “I wouldn’t want them to be doing it if it was a witch hunt.”
Harris said that, if the accusations against Palin were proven true, “it could be fairly damaging to the governor’s credibility. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Harris said it could help Palin end the speculation if she explained why she fired Monegan.
“To get up and say that the only reason she made the change was they wanted to go in a different direction is not an explanation,” Harris said.
Palin has said she wants more of a focus on trooper recruitment and fighting drug and alcohol abuse in rural Alaska. The governor’s spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said no more details are coming about the reasons for Monegan’s dismissal.
“The governor has said she felt the department could be better served under new leadership,” Leighow said. “She can’t talk about the specifics because it’s a personnel issue. And that’s not going to change, no matter who is asking, whether it be a reporter or a lawmaker.”
One difference Palin had with Monegan was on public safety spending, said John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association. He said Palin suggested cuts in the department budget.
“My understanding is that the commissioner had a long-range plan that called for a lot more troopers on the ground, that called for increased training, that called for up-to-date technology, that looked to change the direction of the department,” Cyr said. “And that the governor basically was content with the status quo.”
Leighow, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Palin has asked all departments to find ways to trim spending. But the governor is not looking to cut public safety positions and wants to fill the 56 existing state trooper positions already in the budget, Leighow said.
Palin proposed a $7.3 million increase over the previous year in the current year’s public safety department budget, according to the state Legislative Finance Division. The Legislature cut that to a $6.4 million increase.
Accusations tying Monegan’s firing to an attempt by the governor to get Wooten fired first became public Thursday on former state lawmaker Andrew Halcro’s blog. Halcro, who lost to Palin in the 2006 governor’s race, wrote on his post about the Monegan firing that the public safety budget was cut by .06 percent for this year under Palin. He conceded that was an error Friday.
But Halcro also suggested Monegan’s Friday revelation that he felt pressured by Todd Palin and others to fire Wooten should make those who attacked his blog reconsider.
“And just a note for all our skeptics and the Palin defenders since our story broke yesterday morning. … here’s looking at you kids,” Halcro wrote Friday.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.