As an investigator hired by the Legislature began looking into the firing of the state's former top cop, Gov. Sarah Palin was defiant Thursday.
A seemingly damning phone call from one of her staffers doesn't prove Palin's team was trying to get former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire her ex-brother-in-law, Palin said in a telephone interview.
And if Monegan felt pressured to ax the trooper, he would have said so, she added. "I'm sure Monegan would have come to me and said, 'Call off the dogs, I'm feeling pressure.' "
Whether the governor, family members or staff members squeezed Monegan to fire the trooper, Mike Wooten, who was battling Palin's sister in an emotional divorce, has become a political fireball in the two-year-old Palin administration.
Monegan said Thursday that he never specifically told Palin he was feeling pressed -- he didn't think he had to say it, he said -- but that he would sigh every time he heard complaints originating from the governor's office about the trooper.
To everybody "that I had an opportunity to speak to, I basically told them that DPS will handle it," Monegan said.
If you've been asleep all week, here's the recap: Wooten was locked in a custody battle with Palin's sister. Palin fired Monegan in July, saying she wanted to move the department in a different direction.
Monegan has said he felt pressured to get rid of Wooten, and now the Legislature has hired an investigator to find out if there was anything fishy about his dismissal by the governor. Palin says Wooten had nothing to do with it.
The Department of Law began its own investigation first, at Palin's request.
On Wednesday, Palin released a recording of a phone call between one of her directors, Frank Bailey, and a trooper lieutenant outlining various complaints against Wooten -- from drunken driving to lying on an application -- saying the governor and her husband wondered why the trooper still had a job.
Palin says she never asked Bailey to make the call, which she called "just wrong." But she argued Thursday that it doesn't mean her administration pressured Monegan.
"If that's pressure, then (after) years in law enforcement, how do they do their job if that's perceived as pressure?" she said.
Palin has said her staff made at least 20 calls to the Department of Public Safety regarding Wooten -- often asking about the process of investigating or disciplining a trooper.
Monegan said the issue kept re-appearing like a bad penny.
"We don't ignore complaints, but if it's the same one with no new evidence ... then I have to tell people that there's nothing new here," he said.
Meantime, the special investigator hired by the Legislature, Steve Branchflower, has begun his work and will meet with legislative committees Monday. The legislators will talk about subpoenas that Branchflower needs to do his work, said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who is overseeing Branchflower's work.
French said Branchflower will sort through issues like Palin's statement that she didn't know about calls her aides were making about Wooten.
"Obviously that's going to be a point of contention. And Steve Branchflower is conducting an investigation that may turn up evidence that illuminates that issue," French said.
French said Branchflower has asked the Palin administration for a "letter of equal access" to the same witnesses that the attorney general has been contacting in his inquiry.
French said the question is whether Palin or her aides broke ethical rules in their handling of the Wooten issue.
"The thing it's going to come down to is whether you have clear evidence that what was motivating them was a bad reason. The administration is totally free to get rid of bad troopers, as long as the reason them thinking he's bad is related to his recent job performance.
But if what they're doing is trying to call him out because of the divorce or allegations from long ago, then I think you're probably breaking the personnel laws."
Branchflower on Thursday established a tip line (264-6617) for anyone with information on the issue.
"It's already yielding results; he's already had a couple of folks contact him, one named and one unnamed," French said.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said he thinks it is a bigger deal politically than legally for the governor.
"Sarah Palin did come in (to office) talking about sort of doing the right thing. It's pretty clear I think on the face of it that some of the people there at least didn't get the message. Because trying to pressure people into firing classified employees is not the right thing," he said.
Palin said it was wrong for Bailey to call trooper Lt. Rodney Dial and say he was speaking on her behalf but defended other calls from her staff as legitimate questions about disciplining a trooper.
Bailey was once Palin's campaign manager early in her successful 2006 run for governor. He worked as a special assistant to the commissioner of Administration and is now Palin's director of boards and commissions.
The governor was still deciding Thursday whether Bailey will keep his job in her administration.
Asked what's next for him, Bailey said in a phone message that: "We're just weighing that right now. Kind of looking at that with the family, and trying to decide, you know, where we want to go."