Questions surround Palin's background check

IN DEPTH? In Alaska, very few people were involved in the GOP vetting process.

September 2, 2008 

Gov. Sarah Palin's reluctant announcement Monday that her unmarried, teenage daughter was within months of making her a grandmother at age 44 also turned a spotlight on Sen. John McCain, who would have Palin as his vice president.

McCain's presidential campaign spent the day trying to assure fellow Republicans and the nation that Palin's background was thoroughly vetted. The pregnancy of Bristol Palin, 17, came as no surprise to them, they said.

But in Alaska, it was hard to find anyone who had been contacted by McCain's campaign.

Thomas Van Flein, the Anchorage lawyer representing Palin and her office in the legislature's investigation into the firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, said he spoke to several representatives from McCain before Palin's selection was announced Friday.

But Van Flein appears to be in a small minority in the vetting of Palin.

The former U.S. attorney for Alaska, Wev Shea, who enthusiastically recommended Palin back in March, said he was never contacted with any follow-up questions.

Chris Coleman, one of Palin's next-door neighbors, said no one representing McCain spoke to him about Palin. Another neighbor also was never contacted, he said Monday.

Republican Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska House, said Friday that she was shocked by McCain's selection of Palin and told her husband, Walt, "This can't be happening because his advance team didn't come to Alaska to check her out." She said she would've heard had someone been poking around.

"We're not a very big state," Phillips said. "People I talk to would've heard something."

Monegan, fired by Palin in July, said that no one from the McCain campaign contacted him, either. His firing is now the subject of a special legislative investigation into whether Palin or members of her administration improperly interfered with the running of his department by pushing for dismissal of a state trooper involved in a divorce and custody battle with Palin's sister.

Alaska Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, told The New York Times, "They didn't speak to anyone in the Legislature, they didn't speak to anyone in the business community."

Wasilla Mayor Dianne Keller said she had not heard of any efforts to look into Palin's background, the Times reported. And Randy Ruedrich, the state Republican Party chairman, said he knew nothing of any vetting that had been conducted.

State Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat who is directing the legislative investigation, said that no one asked him about the allegations. "I heard not a word, not a single contact," he told the Times.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor Curt Menard told the Daily News, "I never got called, and I never heard of anybody who got called." Perhaps, he laughed, "They don't even know where the Mat-Su Borough is."

Dan Seamount, who served with Palin and Ruedrich on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, wasn't contacted, either.

"I was taken by surprise just like everybody else," Seamount told the Daily News.

Seamount's observations might be of particular interest since he saw first hand how Palin was drawn into investigating Ruedrich for ethics violations in 2003. The case eventually led to Ruedrich being fined $12,000 and to Palin being thrust into the limelight as an ethics reformer in her own party.

On Sunday, The Washington Post quoted McCain campaign manager Rick Davis as saying the FBI conducted a background check of Palin.

But Monday, the FBI told the Atlantic Monthly no such check took place.

"In general, we do not do vetting for political campaigns except as it might regard investigations needed for security clearances," the magazine's Web site quoted John Miller, the chief FBI spokesman. If the agency had conducted a security check of Palin, it wouldn't have shared it with the campaign, the magazine said.

Previous vice presidential picks -- even those with long records in national politics -- have come under much closer scrutiny. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman after a vetting process that lasted about 10 months, including poring through some 800 legal opinions Lieberman had been involved with as Connecticut Attorney General.

The New York Times reported that other surprises surfaced Monday involving Palin: that she was a member for two years in the 1990s of the Alaskan Independence Party, which at times supported secession for Alaska, and that her husband Todd was arrested 22 years ago on a drunken-driving charge.

Shea, the U.S. Attorney in Alaska during the administration of the first George Bush and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, said he was contacted in March by a friend with connections to McCain and asked what he thought about Palin.

Shea, who advised Palin, including drafting a White Paper on ethics for her incoming administration, said he responded enthusiastically, but didn't believe that was part of a vetting process. Shea said the contact came as an e-mail from Daniel Bent, the former U.S. Attorney in Honolulu, after Palin attended a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, during which she met McCain. Aside for that one e-mail in March, Shea said, he received no follow-up questions.

Reached Sunday evening at his home in Honolulu, Bent said he couldn't recall exactly how Palin's name came to him, but sent Shea's response to a confidante of McCain, Orson Swindle. Asked whether what he did could be considered vetting Palin, Bent said, "No, no. It was just passing it on to the McCain campaign."

Seamount, a geologist who still serves on the commission, said Monday he would have never guessed Palin's future based on what she said at the time.

"She always told me that she thought that she wasn't going anywhere politically," Seamount said. "She told me she thought her political future was shot because of her wars with Randy. Personally, I tried to encourage her, because I thought she had a lot of potential there."

Palin's overriding interests at the time were about Alaska, Seamount said. She expressed some concerns about terrorism, but if she had any opinions on the war in Iraq, he couldn't recall. Palin never talked about traveling outside the country, he said.

"She seemed mostly a local person," he said. "Most of what we talked about was Alaska issues."

Much has been made in the last few days of Palin having to apply for a passport before she traveled last year to Kuwait to visit Alaska National Guard troops there.

Richard Mauer and Lisa Demer reported from Anchorage and Sean Cockerham from St. Paul. Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins and David Lightman from McClatchy Newspapers also contributed.

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