Sarah Palin unlawfully abused her power as governor by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper, the chief investigator of an Alaska legislative panel concluded Friday. The politically charged inquiry imperiled her reputation as a reformer on John McCain’s Republican ticket.
Investigator Stephen Branchflower, in a report by a bipartisan panel that investigated the matter, found Palin in violation of a state ethics law that prohibits public officials from using their office for personal gain.
The inquiry looked into her dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan, who said he lost his job because he resisted pressure to fire a state trooper involved in a bitter divorce with the governor’s sister. Palin says Monegan was fired as part of a legitimate budget dispute.
The report found that Palin let the family grudge influence her decision-making even if it was not the sole reason Monegan was dismissed. “I feel vindicated,” Monegan said. “It sounds like they’ve validated my belief and opinions. And that tells me I’m not totally out in left field.”
Branchflower said Palin violated a statute of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.
“I disagree,” said Palin attorney Thomas Van Flein. “In order to violate the ethics law, there has to be some personal gain, usually financial. Mr. Branchflower has failed to identify any financial gain.”
The statute says “any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that (public) trust.”
Palin and McCain’s supporters had hoped the inquiry’s finding would be delayed until after the presidential election to spare her any embarrassment and to put aside an enduring distraction as she campaigns as McCain’s running mate in an uphill contest against Democrat Barack Obama.
But the panel of lawmakers voted to release the report, although not without dissension. There was no immediate vote on whether to endorse its findings.
“I think there are some problems in this report,” said Republican state Sen. Gary Stevens, a member of the panel. “I would encourage people to be very cautious, to look at this with a jaundiced eye.”
The nearly 300-page report does not recommend sanctions or a criminal investigation.
The investigation revealed that Palin’s husband, Todd, has extraordinary access to the governor’s office and her closest advisers. He used that access to try to get trooper Mike Wooten fired, the report found.
Branchflower faulted Sarah Palin for taking no action to stop that. He also noted there is evidence the governor herself participated in the effort.
Wooten had been in hot water before Palin became governor over allegations that he illegally shot a moose, drank beer in a patrol car and used a Taser on his stepson.
In proceedings revealed by the report, former Alaska State Trooper Col. Julia Grimes told investigators that Sarah Palin called her in late 2005 to discuss why Wooten hadn’t been fired, and Grimes told her the inquiry was confidential by law.
“Her questions were how can a trooper who behaves this way still be working,” Grimes said. “I asked her to please trust me, that because I can’t tell her details I would ask her to please trust me that I would take the appropriate action if and when I knew what the findings were. … I couldn’t have another conversation with her about it because, again, it’s protected by law.”
Grimes said Todd Palin also contacted her by telephone in late 2005 to discuss the confidential investigation of Wooten.
Wooten’s disciplinary case was settled in September 2006 — months before Palin was elected governor — and he was allowed to continue working as a trooper.
After Palin’s election, her new public safety commissioner, Monegan, said he was summoned to the governor’s office to meet Todd Palin, who said Wooten’s punishment had been merely a “slap on the wrist.” Monegan said he understood the Palins wanted Wooten fired. “I had this kind of ominous feeling that I may not be long for this job if I didn’t somehow respond accordingly,” Monegan told the investigator.
For months afterward, Todd Palin filed complaints about Wooten, saying he was seen riding a snowmobile after he had filed a worker’s compensation claim and was seen dropping off his children at school in his patrol car. Monegan said Wooten’s doctor had authorized the snowmobile trip and his supervisor had approved his use of the patrol car. Monegan said Alaska’s attorney general later called him to inquire about Wooten, and Monegan told him they shouldn’t be discussing the subject.
“This was an issue that apparently wasn’t going to go away, that there were certainly frustrations,” Monegan said. “To say that (Sarah Palin) was focused on this I think would be accurate.”