Troopergate seems to be trapped in limbo

AT LEAST UNTIL AFTER NOV. 4: McCain campaign uses its power.

September 21, 2008 

Until three weeks ago, only Alaskans and a few hard-core political junkies in the rest of the country cared about the obscure scandal known here as Troopergate.

A legislative committee had ordered an investigation into whether Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power to settle a vendetta against her sister's ex-husband. She didn't seem too worried. Broadly popular, she adopted a bring-it-on attitude, saying: "Hold me accountable. ... I don't have anything to hide."

But the bravado at allegations she dismissed the state's top law enforcement official when he wouldn't fire Palin's former brother-in-law from his state trooper's job disappeared on Aug. 29.

Suddenly, Palin was the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Suddenly, aided by McCain campaign operatives, she began stonewalling.

Over the next several weeks, Palin and her team withheld the investigation's most important witnesses -- herself, her husband Todd, and a host of key administration aides. Palin also continued to withhold potentially key evidence -- the contents of e-mail exchanges among the governor, her husband and key state officials.

Although the Legislature's investigator still plans to issue a report in October, the probe is effectively killed until January, when Sarah Palin will either be vice president or return to the governor's mansion in Juneau.

At that point, the investigation would revert to being mostly the concern of Alaskans and political junkies, if it matters at all.

In the meantime, questions that could settle the dispute will go unanswered.

WHAT IS IN THE E-MAILS?

The only smoking gun so far in Troopergate is the recorded telephone call by a Palin aide, Frank Bailey, to Lt. Rodney Dial of the Alaska State Troopers on Feb. 29. In that call, Bailey asked a pointed question about the continued employment of Mike Wooten, the trooper who divorced Palin's sister, Molly McCann.

"Why is this guy still representing the department?" Bailey asked.

He went on to tell Dial: "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, why on earth hasn't, why is this guy still representing the department? He's a horrible recruiting tool. ... You know, I mean from their perspective, everyone's protecting him."

Both Palin and Bailey say he'd acted on his own in making the call, but the investigation had been looking into whether the governor, her husband and other administration officials knew about the call or helped direct it.

During the call, Bailey appeared privy to information from Wooten's confidential personnel files. Bailey later told the Legislature's investigator, Stephen Branchflower, that he'd received the information from the governor's husband.

Todd Palin, although a private citizen, frequently participates in a range of official duties. He had been copied in on official state e-mail that are now being withheld from the public on the grounds of executive privilege.

Cell phone records show that Todd Palin called key Palin aide Ivy Frye three times on the afternoon of Feb. 28, the day before Bailey's conversation about Wooten with Dial. The topics of discussion have not been disclosed.

Three-and-a-half hours after the last call, the first of 10 e-mails begin to fly among Frye, the governor, Todd Palin, Bailey, Administration Commissioner Annette Kreitzer, Deputy Chief of Staff Randy Ruaro and Palin aide Kris Perry. The exchanges continued overnight and into the morning of Bailey's phone call.

Only the senders, recipients and subject lines of those e-mails were released under a public records request. The e-mails carry the subject line "PSEA," a reference to the troopers' union, the Public Safety Employees Association, which was in the midst of contract negotiations with the state.

Palin won't release the contents of those e-mails. Despite her claim that Alaska's government is open and transparent, they -- along with more than 1,000 other messages -- are shrouded behind an exemption in the state's open records law.

Even more e-mails -- the number unknown -- circulated between Palin and her inner circle on private e-mail accounts that aren't subject to the state's open records law.

Last week, hackers revealed they'd broken into one of Palin's private accounts and posted some of its contents on the Web. One of the more intriguing messages was sent from Chief of Staff Mike Nizich to Palin on Aug. 7, a week into the Troopergate investigation, with the subject line: "CONFIDENTIAL Ethics Matter."

WHY WAS HE FIRED?

Palin's explanation of why she fired Monegan on July 11 has shifted.

Monegan said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month that he wasn't given an explanation when Nizich told him he was being removed.

Six days later, Andrew Halcro, a former legislator and one of Palin's two 2006 gubernatorial election opponents, wrote in his blog that an anonymous source told him Palin had fired Monegan because he'd refused to fire Wooten.

The next day, Palin released a statement denying the allegations. Monegan responded publicly by saying he felt pressure to fire Wooten from both Palins, former Chief of Staff Mike Tibbles, Kreitzer and Bailey.

Palin said Monegan was let go over differing budget priorities and his failure to make progress on key goals, including reducing trooper vacancies and fighting alcohol abuse in rural Alaska.

Yet, when Monegan was fired, Nizich offered him another job as head of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which regulates alcohol sales statewide.

Palin's staff, meanwhile, suggested that Palin had been upset with Monegan over the ongoing negotiations with the troopers' union because Monegan was pushing for more money for the force and opposed her push to strengthen its integrity clause -- a move that might have made firing Wooten easier.

Last week, as national interest in Troopergate blossomed, the McCain campaign gave another reason for Monegan's firing -- insubordination.

McCain operatives called Monegan a "rogue" who repeatedly tried to work outside normal channels for requesting money; Monegan said Palin never expressed any displeasure with him.

Monegan has come to regard her stated explanations as nonsense: "It boiled down to one issue," he told the AP. "There was only one reason that I got fired." Wooten.

WAS THERE A REAL DEATH THREAT?

In December 2006, during the first month of Palin's administration, members of her state trooper security detail asked if she was aware of any threats to herself or her family. Palin could offer only one: her former brother-in-law. She said Wooten had threatened to kill her father on Feb. 17, 2005, because he offered to hire a divorce lawyer for her sister.

"There was a serious, genuine concern about not only their safety, but the safety of their family, their kids, their nieces, nephews, her father, regarding Trooper Wooten," Bailey said in his deposition.

By then, Wooten's divorce from Palin's sister, Molly McCann, was more than a year in the past. During the time in between, though, Palin and her father, Chuck Heath, had cited the threat in various complaints against Wooten to the state police.

The first complaint was filed in 2005, about when the couple separated; Sarah Palin gave an interview to the troopers as part of the ensuing investigation.

Palin sent Col. Julia Grimes, then the head of the troopers, a letter on Aug. 10, 2005, repeating the Wooten threat. Heath sent Grimes a letter on Oct. 10, 2005, listing the threat among a litany of complaints against Wooten.

Both letters focused more on the topic of frustration that no action had been taken to discipline Wooten than on any fear that the Palins were in danger.

Heath complained that the public and troopers were aware of Wooten's behavior, "yet, as of today this trooper still has not been held accountable for his illegal actions."

Wooten's union director, John Cyr, told the AP that the Palin family complaints amounted to harassment and that no one outside the Palin family had ever filed a complaint against Wooten.

In an interview with the AP, Wooten said, "I was not a threat to them, I've never been a threat to them and I won't be a threat to them. I have my priorities, and what I want to do with my life, and it doesn't include them."

DID SHE ABUSE HER POWER?

At a news conference in July, Palin characterized the two dozen contacts from her staff to Monegan about Wooten as entirely appropriate. She also said she'd had no idea the contacts had been made.

But the Palins themselves had exerted considerable pressure, expressing much additional concern about Wooten in the first months of her administration. Monegan said Todd Palin asked him about the Wooten case in January 2007; Monegan told him that he'd looked into the case and it was closed.

A few days later, the governor called Monegan on his cell phone, also inquiring about Wooten, Monegan said.

"I re-explained the same thing to her as I did with Todd," he said.

Monegan said he interpreted those calls as the Palins venting, and that neither had explicitly told him to fire Wooten.

"Once I passed that information on and explained the process was done, I thought the issue would have been over," he said.

But the governor tried to bring it up again the next month at a birthday party for a state senator. Palin approached Monegan there and brought up Wooten. Monegan said he turned her away "to protect her" from getting into trouble over interference.

" 'I need to keep you at arms' length,' " he recalled telling Palin at the time. "I didn't want her to be embarrassed or to get in trouble."

The Palins still weren't happy, Monegan said. In a later e-mail to him, Sarah Palin called the Wooten investigation "a joke."

Between the birthday party and the Bailey phone call a year later, Monegan said, he was contacted intermittently by Kreitzer, Tibbles and Attorney General Talis Colberg, all inquiring about Wooten. He said he also received two or three e-mails from the governor that were ostensibly about an unrelated subject, but that each contact always led to a mention of the Wooten matter.

Monegan said he repeatedly warned that such conversations and messages would be discoverable if Wooten ever sued: "I remember asking the chief of staff, 'Do you want Wooten to own your house? No? Well, neither do I. So let me handle the matter.' "

Monegan declined to give the AP copies of the e-mails from Palin's staffers.

HOW DID THEY KILL THE INVESTIGATION?

Almost from the moment Palin was named McCain's running mate, Republicans started pressuring to end the probe, which had been approved unanimously by a legislative committee of four Democrats and 10 Republicans.

McCain's campaign began claiming the investigation was a political witch hunt, even though some Alaska Republican lawmakers still backed it.

Then Palin aides canceled their appointments to testify.

After lawmakers began issuing subpoenas, Palin's legal team -- bolstered by McCain campaign lawyer Ed O'Callaghan, a former federal prosecutor -- said the governor would no longer cooperate.

Next, the Palin team began to exploit a weakness in the Legislature's authority to call witnesses.

Late last week, Todd Palin declined to testify, and Colberg, the attorney general, ordered Palin's executive branch employees not to testify.

Republican state Sen. Gene Therriault said he had opposed issuing subpoenas because it would force the two sides to retreat to their corners -- and, he added, that's what happened.

"I tried to warn the committee off of this path," Therriault said. "I'm fearful of where we are."

Because lawmakers have little power to enforce their subpoenas unless the full Legislature is in session, the investigation has stalled until lawmakers reconvene in January.

Palin herself could call a special session at any time. So, too, could the legislators -- if two-thirds of the 60 members approve.

Given recent events, neither of those scenarios seems very likely.


Associated Press reporters Steve Quinn in Juneau and Dan Joling in Anchorage contributed to this report.

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