Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power in pushing for the firing of a state trooper once married to her sister and by allowing her husband to use the governor's office in a crusade against the officer, a legislative investigation found.
"Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired," concluded investigator Steve Branchflower in his report made public Friday.
The governor let her husband, Todd, use the governor's office and its resources, "including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired," Branchflower wrote.
"She had the authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act," he wrote.
This created conflicts of interests for the state employees Todd Palin was contacting. "They must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of such displeasure. This was one of the very reasons the Ethics Act was promulgated by the Legislature," Branchflower wrote.
Palin also made several inquiries herself about why Wooten remained on the job shortly after she became governor, Branchflower said.
His report was released Friday by a 12-0 vote of the Legislative Council, with eight Republicans and four Democrats voting. Some members of the panel said they didn't agree with Branchflower's findings, however.
Besides the abuse of power finding, Branchflower made three other findings in his investigation of the so-called Troopergate matter:
Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, in July was a lawful exercise of her powers. However, Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was one of several reasons he lost his job, the investigator said.
A Wooten workers' compensation claim was properly handled by an Anchorage firm, Harbor Adjustment Service, working under contract to the state.
The state attorney general's office "failed to substantially comply" with Branchflower's Aug. 6 request to Palin for e-mails about the case.
Palin ran as an ethics reformer when she won the governor's office in 2006, a theme she's pounded in her campaign as the Republican nominee for vice president.
The Branchflower report has attracted huge interest. Reporters from all over the world camped out for six hours in the downtown Anchorage legislative information office waiting for release of the report.
In a five-page response issued Friday night, Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, accuses Branchflower and Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the investigation, of using the probe in a partisan attempt to "smear the governor by innuendo."
Van Flein said Branchflower's finding that Palin violated the ethics act is flawed because she received no monetary benefit from whatever actions she and her husband are accused of. He cited several prior ethics investigations.
"The common thread of all of these Ethics Act cases is money and the use of a government position to personally gain," Van Flein's statement said.
Branchflower wrote that Alaska's ethics act forbids state officials from using their office for personal benefit, which he found to mean anything in their own self interest.
The McCain-Palin campaign emphasized the report showed Palin acted within her authority by removing Monegan from his job as public safety commissioner. Campaign officials said the Legislative Council "seriously overreached" by finding fault with how the governor and her husband reacted to trooper Wooten.
"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and the public interest by reporting to appropriate authorities the conduct of a threatening and abusive trooper," campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton said.
TROUBLE GOES BACK FOR YEARS
The Legislative Council hired Branchflower in August to investigate whether Palin or members of her administration abused their powers in pushing for Wooten's firing, and whether their efforts resulted in Monegan losing his job.
Wooten was involved in a nasty divorce with Palin's sister, Molly. The divorce was finalized in 2006 but custody and other issues over their children continue.
The Palins contend Wooten was a bad cop who threatened to kill Chuck Heath, the governor's father, and a bad person who Tasered his stepson, drove his patrol car after drinking, and claimed a workers' comp disability when he was capable of working. Todd Palin repeatedly told people that he and his wife considered Wooten a threat to his family. Wooten was suspended for five days in 2006, before Palin became governor, as a result of a trooper investigation into his behavior.
Branchflower, however, wrote that he doesn't believe the Palins were truly afraid of Wooten.
"I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons."
Shortly after Palin was elected in November 2006, she and her husband met with Gary Wheeler, a state trooper assigned to protect the governor. Wheeler asked the Palins if they were afraid of anyone. "I got a negative response, meaning that there -- they basically said no," Wheeler told the investigator.
But after Palin was sworn in on Dec. 5, 2006, the Palins told Wheeler about Wooten, Branchflower said.
Yet the governor cut the size of her protection detail, "an act that is inconsistent with a desire to avoid harm from Trooper Wooten," Branchflower wrote.
The Palins' lawyer, Van Flein, responded Branchflower "outrageously" downplayed the apprehension that the Palins and the governor's parents felt about Wooten.
"Branchflower was never tased by Wooten, was never threatened with death by a "f----- lead bullet"; never had his teenage daughter verbally assaulted by Wooten, and was never bullied and intimidated by Wooten," Van Flein wrote.
REACTIONS ARE DIVIDED
The chairman of the Legislative Council, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he agreed with Branchflower's findings but wasn't ready to suggest there should be any consequences for the governor.
"We don't charge people, we don't try people as legislators," Elton said. Any further action or disciplinary measures, he said, would be up to Palin's executive branch, the attorney general or the state Personnel Board, which is conducting its own Troopergate investigation.
Branchflower said his report did not include late-arriving statements from state officials who, on the advice of Attorney General Talis Colberg, had resisted subpoenas. They, as well as Todd Palin, did provide written statements this week after a judge upheld the subpoenas. Their statements did not cause Branchflower to change his conclusions.
Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the report is flawed because it didn't include those statements.
Therriault said Todd Palin's written response indicates that Gov. Palin, at some point, urged her husband to drop his efforts against Wooten. That information goes to the heart of Branchflower's conclusion that the governor violated the ethics law, Therriault said.
Therriault said Branchflower was unable to consider those late-arriving materials "because we had this artificial deadline today."
"Why?" he continued. "Because we're in a political season."
In his sworn statement this week, Todd Palin said about conversations with his wife about Wooten, "At some point Sarah told me to 'drop it' and stop talking about the issue and I discussed it with her much less often." He said he spoke repeatedly with many other state officials, however.
Senate President Lyda Green said the report doesn't speak well for the governor.
"The problem with power is that people pay attention to it," the Wasilla Republican said. "And it's very easy to get beside yourself and use it in the wrong way.
"And we do have to leave personal business at home," she said.
Two other lawmakers said the governor and her husband's actions were understandable.
"Who is going to blame Todd Palin for protecting his family?" said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole. "Not me."
Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he thinks Branchflower's findings are wrong, and that Palin didn't violate the ethics act. "She and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family," Lynn said. "I think any normal person would do the same."
Monegan said Friday night that, overall, he's relieved with the report's finding. But he said he believes the Wooten issue was more than merely a "contributing factor" to his firing as public safety commissioner, as Branchflower concluded.
"Wooten was the significant factor," Monegan said, not a string of other allegations the Palin administration and the campaign lodged against him: budget conflicts, unauthorized trips to Washington, D.C., lack of recruiting.
"Those were small, little things made much larger" because of the "emotional energy and heat" the Palins felt over the Wooten issue, Monegan said.
FEEDBACK FOR COMPLAINANTS
The release of Branchflower's 263-page report came after the Legislative Council discussed it for six hours in a closed-door meeting.
Branchflower recommends the Legislature change the way complaints against peace officers such as troopers are handled. Lawmakers should consider making it possible for people who file such complaints to get feedback about the status of their complaint and whatever action was taken about it, he wrote.
The initial complaint against Wooten was filed by Gov. Palin's father, Chuck Heath, before she was elected governor in 2006. Branchflower says the inability of the family to get information about what was happening with the complaint was frustrating to them.
"I believe their frustration was real as was their skepticism about whether their complaints were being zealously investigated," Branchflower's report said. "The irony is that the complaints were taken very seriously, and a thorough investigation was under way. However, the law prevented the Troopers from giving them any feedback whatsoever."
The law should try to balance the need for confidentiality with a recognition that feedback to the filer of a complaint is also important, the report said.
Branchflower report excerpt:
"The evidence supports the conclusion that Governor Palin, at the least, engaged in "official action" by her inaction if not her active participation or assistance to her husband in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired (and there is evidence of her active participation). She knowingly ... permitted Todd Palin to use the Governor's office and the resources of the Governor's office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired." Statement from Palin's lawyer
"This investigation started because Monegan claimed he was "fired" for supposedly not firing a dangerous cop. Branchflower now concludes that was a false allegation and instead he noted that there were legitimate reasons to remove Monegan as Commissioner. The Governor has been fully factually vindicated as we have maintained she would be. But the partisan nature of this investigation ineluctably compelled Branchflower and Sen. French to nevertheless smear the Governor by innuendo, and by presenting incorrect representations of what the law is."
-- Thomas Van Flein, lawyer for Sarah and Todd Palin
Branchflower's report comes in $25,000 under budget
When legislators voted July 28 to investigate potential abuses of power in the administration of Gov. Sarah Palin, they authorized spending up to $100,000.
But the investigation cost the state less than that -- about $75,000, said state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who served as "project director."
Of this amount, Stephen Branchflower, the independent investigator the lawmakers hired, will collect $45,000, said French, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He received half the money up front with the rest to be paid upon delivery of the investigative report.
Another $30,000 was spent on expenses such as copying, court reporting and transcribing, and managing computer files, French said.
Branchflower is a retired Alaska prosecutor now living in South Carolina. He could not be reached for comment late Monday, after spending several hours presenting his findings to the Legislative Council.
"I do not believe he is going to make any press statements," French said.
-- Wesley Loy
From the Branchflower report
Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired. She had the authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act.
Such impermissible and repeated contacts create conflicts of interests for subordinate employees who must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of such displeasure. This was one of the very reasons the Ethics Act was promulgated by the Legislature.
Governor Palin has stated publicly that she and her family feared Trooper Wooten. Yet the evidence presented has been inconsistent with such claims of fear. The testimony from Trooper Wheeler, who was part of her security detail from the start, was that shortly after elected to office, she ordered a substantial reduction in manpower in her personal protection detail ... an act that is inconsistent with a desire to avoid harm from Trooper Wooten or others.
...It is noteworthy that in almost every contact with the subordinate employees, Mr. Palin's comments were couched in terms of his desire to see Trooper Wooten fired for reasons that had nothing to do with fear. His comments were always couched in terms that he was a bad Trooper, that he was not a good recruiting image for the AST, that his discipline amounted to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, that nothing had happened to him following the administrative investigation, and so forth...
I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons.