From Wesley Loy in Juneau –
State legislators on Monday voted to spend up to $100,000 to investigate Gov. Sarah Palin’s controversial firing of former state Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
The decision came from the Legislative Council, a bipartisan panel of state senators and representatives.
The committee itself will not conduct the probe. Rather, it will hire an independent investigator to explore whether Palin, her family or members of her administration pressured Monegan to fire a state trooper involved in a rough divorce from Palin’s sister.
Monegan contends he did feel such pressure, and the question for the investigator will be whether Monegan might have lost his job for failing to dismiss Trooper Mike Wooten.
Palin has denied applying any pressure or otherwise abusing her power as governor.
Sharon Leighow, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Palin “doesn’t see a need for a formal investigation,” but is willing to answer questions.
“The governor has said all along that she will fully cooperate with an investigation and her staff will cooperate as well,” Leighow said.
The governor herself was not available for comment Monday afternoon, as she was flying from Anchorage to the capital.
Palin abruptly fired Monegan on July 11 and later explained she wanted to take the Department of Public Safety in a different, more energetic direction. She replaced him with Chuck Kopp, the former Kenai police chief. But Kopp resigned Friday over questions about a reprimand he received after a sexual harassment complaint lodged against him in Kenai.
The Legislative Council is a panel of lawmakers who tend to legislative business when lawmakers are not meeting in regular session.
On Monday, the council voted 12-0 to spend 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.”
Although absent Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, took part in the hearing via teleconference, he did not cast a vote. Cowdery, who is under federal indictment on bribery and conspiracy charges, formerly was chairman of the Legislative Council but resigned last week citing health problems.
Council members on Monday confirmed Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, as the new chairman, and he said he’ll be the one who signs the contract with the person hired to do the Monegan investigation.
The council tabbed Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, a former state prosecutor, with the task of managing the contractor conducting the investigation.
Elton and other lawmakers said they knew of several good candidates – people inside and outside Alaska – who could do the job.
“I can think of at least two people who would be great,” said Elton, declining to name names.
Elton told his fellow council members he hopes the investigation can be done “for a lot less” than $100,000.
The council didn’t specify when the investigator will be hired or when the probe will finish. The motion it passed just says the investigator will submit a report “in a timely manner.”
French told the council the investigator will go to work gathering evidence and then could come back to lawmakers if “some people just won’t talk.” The House and Senate judiciary committees could then issue legislative subpoenas to compel testimony.
“It is the intent of the Legislative Council that the investigation be professional, unbiased, independent, objective, and conducted at arm’s length from the political process,” the council motion says.
Supporters as well as detractors of the Republican governor generally agreed the legislative investigation is needed into the circumstances leading up to Monegan’s dismissal.
“There’s a big question about what happened. The public wants to know what happened,” said Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg, a Legislative Council member. “There’s something that doesn’t quite smell right. The governor’s not going to appoint a special prosecutor to look at whether she’s abused power.”
Guttenberg said Palin didn’t help matters with her long, rambling press release a week ago in which she and some of her top aides tried to refute Monegan. The press release was titled, “Palin Responds to Latest Falsehoods.”
Sen. Gene Therriault of North Pole, leader of the small Republican Senate minority that generally has backed Palin’s policies, said he expects the governor will cooperate and if she’s cleared, the investigation could strengthen her.
“Unfortunately, with partisan politics and talk shows and bloggers, there’s probably just as much noise as substance,” he said. “Hopefully what the investigator can do is sift through it and see if there’s any legitimacy.”
Senate President Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican and member of the Legislative Council, said the investigation is “absolutely” needed.
“I’m hoping for a clean bill for everybody – that everyone has acted honorably,” said Green, who has butted heads with Palin politically.
Green said she expects the investigator will need perhaps a month to determine whether subpoenas are needed to compel testimony from uncooperative witnesses.
Elton said he’d like the see the whole affair wrapped up before the holidays, and “well before” the new Legislature is seated.