Here's a troopergate story from today's print edition. It's a newer version of the story that was on the Web site this morning.
Monegan case clouds governor’s bright day
By LISA DEMER
The first serious scandal in Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration has roots in a family feud. It erupted into public view with the July 11 firing of the state’s top public safety official.
It’s not resolved even now as she becomes U.S. Sen. John McCain’s running mate.
Some call it Troopergate.
Palin’s abrupt dismissal of Monegan on July 11 is being investigated by a special counsel hired by the Alaska Legislature.
At issue is whether Palin, her administration or family improperly pressured state Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire a state trooper — the ex-husband of Palin’s sister — and whether Palin fired Monegan when that didn’t happen. Trooper Michael Wooten and Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, are divorced but still battling in court over custody and visitation.
The McCain campaign says Palin “was never directly involved” and blamed the controversy on the campaign of the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
“The Governor did nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. It’s outrageous that the Obama campaign is trying to attack her over a family issue. As a reformer and a leader on ethics reform, she has been happy to help out in the investigation of this matter, because she was never directly involved,” the campaign said in a statement.
Palin has repeatedly said she did not pressure Monegan and did not know until recently that anyone on her staff might have done so.
The trooper controversy has been swirling around Palin for weeks, long before Palin was launched Friday into the bright lights of the national campaign.
Monegan said Friday evening Palin was involved. The governor twice brought up Wooten to him — once on the phone soon after she took office, and once in person not long after that, Monegan said.
Plus, the governor’s husband, Todd, talked to him several times about Wooten, three top officials in her administration contacted him, and another Palin aide contacted a trooper lieutenant, Monegan said.
Palin recently acknowledged, based on an internal inquiry, that a half dozen people in her administration had initiated contacts with the Department of Public Safety about Wooten.
Monegan also disclosed for the first time Friday that Palin sent him two or three e-mails that referenced her ex-brother-in-law and his status with troopers but he wouldn’t provide them because of the ongoing investigation.
Monegan said he believes his firing was directly related to the fact Wooten stayed on the job.
“It was a significant factor if not the factor,” Monegan said.
No one from the McCain campaign ever contacted him to vet Palin as a candidate, Monegan said.
Who did they contact?
“We don’t talk about the vetting process,” said Maria Comella, Palin’s vice president campaign press secretary.
“BRING ME DOWN”
The Legislature is spending up to $100,000 “to investigate the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch.”
The investigation is supposed to wrap up by Oct. 31, just days before the general election.
Palin will be deposed along with others in the governor’s office and former administration officials, said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat and former state prosecutor from Anchorage who is serving as the project director for the investigation. The special counsel just this week was trying to arrange Palin’s deposition, French said.
The investigation will continue, French said.
“I think it raises the profile but it doesn’t really change the mission or the work,” the senator said.
Before she was governor, Palin pushed for a trooper investigation of Wooten over a number of matters, including using a Taser on his stepson, illegally shooting a moose, and accusations of driving drunk. At one point, Palin and her husband hired a private investigator.
Troopers did investigate, and Wooten was suspended for 10 days, later reduced to five. That took care of it, Monegan said. But the Palin administration and Todd Palin wouldn’t let go, he said.
Palin initially said that, after she took office in December 2006, she broached the subject of Wooten with Monegan just once, when they discussed her security detail. She said that she told Monegan that Wooten “had threatened to kill my dad and bring me down.” She said she thought that was the end of it.
Monegan said Palin called him on his cell phone one night in January 2007 about Wooten, but it wasn’t related to her security detail. He said he had already met with Todd Palin about Wooten, whom he hadn’t heard of before, and had looked into the family’s complaints only to learn they already had been investigated. Palin seemed frustrated that nothing more could be done, he said.
“For the record, no one ever said fire Wooten. Not the governor. Not Todd. Not any of the other staff,” Monegan said Friday from Portland. “What they said directly was more along the lines of 'this isn’t a person that we would want to be representing our state troopers.’”
Palin again brought up Wooten in February 2007 as they were walking together to wish a state senator a happy birthday, Monegan said. He said he told Palin he had to keep her at arm’s distance on the matter and she agreed.
A Palin political rival, Andrew Halcro, was the first to publicly mention the Wooten matter in connection with Monegan. He titled his blog post: “Why Walt Monegan got fired: Palin’s abuse of power.”
“This is a governor who really built her name by stepping on the back of sinners — Randy Ruedrich, Greg Renkes, Frank Murkowski,” Halcro said in an interview Friday, referring to the Republican Party chairman, the former attorney general and the former governor. “And now her administration seems to be taking the same approach as the people that she criticized.”
More of the story came out on July 17, when the Public Safety Employees Association, with Wooten’s permission, released the investigative file concerning the complaints brought against the trooper by the Palin family and others.
The personnel investigation began in April 2005, long before Palin became governor and months before her October 2005 announcement that she was running. The investigation into Wooten wrapped up in March 2006, before she was elected.
Troopers found four instances in which Wooten violated policy, broke the law, or both:
- Wooten used a Taser on his stepson, to show him how it worked.
- He shot a moose without a permit. At the time he was married to McCann, who won a highly coveted permit in a drawing but never intended to use it herself.
- He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion.
- He told others that his father-in-law — Palin’s father, Chuck Heath — would “eat a f’ing lead bullet” if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce.
AN ETHICS COMPLAINT
On July 28, the state Legislative Council, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives, approved hiring an independent investigator to look into Monegan’s firing and any abuse of power. Retired prosecutor Steve Branchflower was named special counsel.
“I’ve said all along you could come up with dust, you come up with no evidence of wrongdoing, or you could come up with clear evidence of wrongdoing. And it might be by the governor, it might be somebody else,” French, the state senator, said Friday.
Meanwhile, Palin also faces an ethics complaint filed by Andree McLeod, a former state employee and political activist. McLeod has accused the governor’s office of using its influence to get a Palin supporter a job. Complaints against the governor go before a three-person state personnel board. McLeod based her complaint on e-mails between members of the governor’s staff that are among four boxes of papers she got through a recent public records request.
This month, as Palin’s administration gathered materials for the legislative investigation, the governor released a recording of a phone call in which one of her aides pressured a trooper lieutenant to fire Wooten.
That contradicted her earlier claims that there had been no pressure. She said she was unaware of the conversation until then.
In the Feb. 29 phone call, which was recorded by troopers as they do routinely, aide Frank Bailey told the trooper lieutenant that Palin and her husband wanted to know why Wooten still had a job.
“Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn’t this, why is this guy still representing the department?’ He’s a horrible recruiting tool, you know,” Bailey told Lt. Rodney Dial.
Palin has put Bailey on paid administrative leave during the investigation. She said she never asked Bailey to make that call.
After Monegan’s dismissal, Palin’s pick for his replacement backfired. Charles Kopp, who had been police chief in Kenai, lasted just two weeks in the job, stepping down as public safety commissioner in July over revelations of sexual harassment while police chief.
At a press conference to announce Kopp’s resignation, both Palin and Kopp read brief statements then, in an unusual move for Palin, dashed off without answering questions.
Regarding Monegan, Palin has maintained that her decision to fire him had nothing to do with his refusal to dump Wooten. She said she wanted a “new direction” for the department.
Palin has formed a committee to help her pick a new public safety commissioner.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.