Troopergate findings are due today

CLOSED DOOR: Legislative Council will decide on release.

October 10, 2008 

The Alaska Supreme Court has cleared for possible release to the public today the Legislature's highly anticipated investigative report on whether Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power.

The court Thursday rejected an attempt by a group of six Republican legislators to keep the report into the so-called Troopergate affair from being made public. That made way for members of the bipartisan Legislative Council, which ordered the investigation, to go ahead and pick up their copies of the report. The legislators signed confidentiality agreements promising not to show anyone, including their staff.

The Legislative Council is expected to vote sometime today whether to make the 263-page report public. The legislators will first meet behind closed doors, starting around 9 a.m. this morning, to receive a briefing from Steve Branchflower, the investigator they hired to look into the governor's dismissal of her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, and whether she improperly pressured him to fire a state trooper divorced from her sister. The meeting of the 14-member council will be at the downtown Anchorage Legislative Information Office.

Branchflower also produced a separate volume, roughly twice as large as his report, that's expected to remain confidential because it contains exhibits with personnel information that cannot legally be released, according to legislative council staff.

There's intense nationwide interest in the investigator's findings and whether they will affect Palin's candidacy as the Republican nominee for vice president. She's No. 2 on the ticket with presidential candidate John McCain.

The Texas-based Liberty Legal Institute and Anchorage attorney Kevin Clarkson, lawyers for the six Alaska Republican legislators who sued to stop the report, argued it violates the right under the Alaska Constitution to a "fair and just" investigation by the Legislature. They alleged bias among the legislators leading the investigation and that the Legislative Council lacked the authority to order the probe. The legislators whose names appeared on the appeal are Wes Keller, Mike Kelly, Fred Dyson, Tom Wagoner, Carl Gatto and Bob Lynn.

The Alaska Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon issued a two-page ruling dismissing their appeal. It upheld last week's decision by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski, who found the conduct of the investigation did not violate the right to fairness. He ruled the Legislature has the right to investigate, and that issues such as whether that happens through a council or committee are not for the courts to decide but are "business to be left to the legislative branch."

Within hours of the court ruling, the McCain-Palin campaign looked to discredit the investigator's report without having seen it. The campaign claimed the Legislative Council's investigation is politically driven and that Palin replaced Monegan as public safety commissioner because of budget differences.

Palin has refused to cooperate with the Legislature's investigation, although the campaign says she is cooperating with a separate probe by the state personnel board. Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, said the Branchflower report won't be complete because the investigator didn't interview key witnesses including the governor and her former chief of staff, Mike Tibbles.

"They didn't even try to interview the governor. You want to know why she reassigned Monegan, it would be nice to talk to her. They didn't even try," Van Flein said.

"It's a report that's going to be half-done at best. And anything that's half-done will likely be half-baked."

Palin spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton criticized the Legislative Council's plans to hold a closed-door meeting to, she said, talk about "confidential" parts of the report.

"This approach raises concerns that all the facts will not be revealed," she said. "If the Legislative Council chooses to selectively release information, that raises the concern that members will have the opportunity to insert politics into the findings of the report."

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who is overseeing the investigation, said the closed-door meeting, known as an "executive session," is needed to protect the reputation and privacy rights of those involved. French also disputed Van Flein's statement that the investigator didn't try to talk to the governor. French said he wrote a letter to Van Flein last month asking to set up the interview.

"That's just strange he would say that when there is evidence to the contrary," French said.

Meantime, a group calling itself "Alaskans for Truth" wrote a letter to Palin on Thursday saying the Supreme Court decision proves that "there is no evidence this investigation has been anything but 'fair and just.' " The group organized an anti-Palin rally late last month, called for the attorney general to lose his job over his handling of the investigation, and encouraged people to urge members of the Legislative Council to make Branchflower's report public.

Monegan said he's come to believe Palin fired him because he wouldn't get rid of Mike Wooten, a state trooper who went through a bitter divorce with Palin's sister.

Kim Peterson, who was Monegan's special assistant, told The New York Times in a story to appear in today's editions that she also believed there was pressure

"To all of us, it was a campaign to get rid of him as a trooper and, at the very least, to smear the guy and give him a desk job somewhere," Peterson said.

Monegan's replacement, Chuck Kopp, told The New York Times that Wooten came up as the Palin administration explored his interest in becoming commissioner of public safety and again when he interviewed for the job. No other troopers were discussed, he said. "It was raised within the context of one of the things that I needed to be aware of, but there was no direction to take any job action."

The McCain-Palin campaign reiterated Thursday that the Palins did nothing wrong.

"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and wanting to bring attention to the injustice of a violent trooper keeping his badge and abusing the workers' compensation system," said the campaign's statement.

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