Lawmakers vote to subpoena 13 in Troopergate

NEW LEAD: Investigator wants to know if a workers' compensation employee was pressured.

September 13, 2008 

State legislators voted Friday to subpoena witnesses including Gov. Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, as part of the Troopergate inquiry, and an investigator disclosed intriguing new details during a tense 2½-hour hearing.

Steve Branchflower, a retired state prosecutor who legislators hired to probe Palin's firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, said someone in the governor's office might have pushed one of the 13 people on the subpoena list to deny workers' compensation benefits to state trooper Mike Wooten.

The trooper was involved in a contentious divorce from Sarah Palin's sister, and Monegan has said in media interviews he believes he lost his job because he wouldn't bend to pressure from the Palin family and at least one of the governor's aides to fire the trooper.

Among the complaints the Palins have lodged against Wooten is that he filed a workers' comp claim even though he wasn't really injured.

Branchflower testified Friday at a joint hearing of the Alaska House and Senate judiciary committees in Anchorage. The hearing room was jammed with reporters and television cameras attracted to the Troopergate affair because of Palin's newfound fame as John McCain's vice presidential running mate.

Committee members vigorously debated whether to take the rare step of issuing subpoenas, with one lawmaker, North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault, predicting that doing so might lead to a "smackdown" court battle between the executive and legislative branches of the state government.

Therriault and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, argued for delaying the issuance of subpoenas, if not the investigation itself, until after the Nov. 4 election.

Others, however, argued for getting on with Branchflower's investigation.

"I say let's just get the facts on the table, the sooner the better," said Sen. Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican who came to the hearing dressed in camouflage, saying he took time out from a moose hunt to attend.

Huggins joined Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hollis French and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, both Anchorage Democrats, in supporting Branchflower's request for subpoenas. Therriault and McGuire voted against.

The House Judiciary Committee, whose role in the joint hearing was advisory only, concurred with the Senate committee.

Legislators launched the probe in late July, well before Palin was announced as a vice presidential candidate. The lawmakers voted to spend up to $100,000 on Branchflower's investigation.

In his testimony Friday, Branchflower explained why he needed to subpoena witnesses, most of whom are state employees who either declined to submit to his questioning or who initially agreed but later canceled appointments.

One "especially important" witness on the subpoena list, Branchflower said, is Murlene Wilkes, owner of an Anchorage company called Harbor Adjustment Service. The company holds a state contract to process and pay workers' comp claims.

Branchflower said in August he heard that "someone from the governor's office or someone from the state" advised Wilkes to deny Wooten's claim. So Branchflower said he called Wilkes to check it out.

Branchflower said Wilkes told him she had never talked to anyone in the governor's office about the Wooten file, nor had she seen photos of Wooten riding a snowmachine while on workers' comp.

But later, he said, an employee under Wilkes who handled Wooten's claim -- Branchflower didn't disclose her name -- called his investigative tip line to say Wilkes told her "something to the effect that either the governor or the governor's office wanted this claim denied."

Branchflower said the employee, during a recorded interview, told him she felt pressured.

"I don't, you know, care if it's the president who wants the claim denied. I'm not going to deny it unless I have the medical evidence to do that," Branchflower said, quoting from the employee's statement.

Now, Branchflower said he wants to take a sworn statement from Wilkes, who he said was possibly "not truthful" in her initial talk with him. Wilkes, he said, canceled a Thursday appointment for an interview on the advice of an attorney.

"She obviously is a key player because she handles all of the workmen's compensation claims for the state of Alaska," Branchflower said. "She may have a financial motive," he added, due to her contract with the state.

Efforts to reach Wilkes for comment were unsuccessful. A reporter visited her Benson Boulevard office early Friday afternoon, and a receptionist said she couldn't talk because she was tied up in a meeting for about an hour. On a second visit later in the afternoon, the receptionist said Wilkes had left for the day.

Tom Van Flein, an Anchorage attorney representing the governor, couldn't say whether someone with the governor's office contacted Harbor Adjustment on the Wooten claim. But Van Flein said state officials did investigate "potential workers' comp fraud," based on information from Todd Palin.

State officials on Friday were unable to fully specify details of the state's current contract with Harbor.

Brad Thompson, the state's risk management director and one of the people who will receive a subpoena, furnished a copy of a one-year contract, signed in 2003, paying Harbor $1.2 million to handle workers' comp claims.

Thompson, in an e-mail, said the state has signed "several extensions" since that initial contract, but he didn't respond to questions as to the current contract term or dollar amount.

Branchflower said he wants to subpoena Todd Palin as the "principal critic" of Wooten's continued employment as a trooper. He told legislators Todd Palin had a meeting with Monegan in the governor's office in January 2007, not long after his wife was sworn in, to show him the results of a private investigation into the trooper's alleged misconduct, including photos of Wooten riding a snowmachine.

Two people who Branchflower hopes to interview, but who legislators decided not to subpoena, are the governor herself and her former chief of staff, Mike Tibbles, now working as campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Branchflower is aiming to finish his report by Oct. 10.


Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call 257-4590.


Subpoena list

Alaska legislators on Friday voted to issue subpoenas for the following:

Frank Bailey, state boards and commissions director, now suspended due to what Gov. Sarah Palin has said was an inappropriate phone call to an Alaska State Troopers supervisor complaining about trooper Mike Wooten

Bailey's cell phone records for calls between Feb. 1 and March 31.

Annette Kreitzer, state administration commissioner

Dianne Kiesel, a state human resources manager

Nicki Neal, state personnel and labor relations director

Brad Thompson, state risk management director

Mike Nizich, Palin's chief of staff

Randy Ruaro, Palin's deputy chief of staff

John Bitney, Palin's former legislative liaison, now aide to House Speaker John Harris

Ivy Frye, a Palin special assistant

Kris Perry, director of the governor's Anchorage office

Janice Mason, Palin's scheduler and executive secretary

Todd Palin, the governor's husband

Murlene Wilkes, owner of Harbor Adjustment Service, an Anchorage business with a state contract to process workers' compensation claims

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