Board's Troopergate probe casts wider net

ETHICS: Investigator hasn't said who else may be under scrutiny.

October 13, 2008 

The state Personnel Board investigation of Gov. Sarah Palin's firing of Walt Monegan has broadened to include other ethics complaints against the governor and examination of actions by other state employees, according to the independent counsel handling the case.

The investigator, Tim Petumenos, did not say who else is under scrutiny. But in two recent letters describing his inquiry, he cited the consolidation of complaints and the involvement of other officials as a reason for not going along with Palin's request to make the examination of her activities more public.

Two other ethics complaints involving Palin are known. One, by activist Andree McLeod, alleges that state hiring practices were circumvented for a Palin supporter. The case is not related to Monegan's firing. The other, by the Public Safety Employees Association, alleges that trooper Mike Wooten's personnel file was illegally breached by state officials.

John Cyr, the PSEA executive director, said Monday the union plans to amend its complaint to be sure the board investigates "harassment" of Wooten as well.

Petumenos has not spoken to the press, in keeping with the secrecy of the state process. But he gave a rough description of the investigation's course in two letters to an Anchorage attorney threatening a lawsuit over Palin's effort to waive confidentiality.

Attention is turning this week to the Personnel Board -- the state's official avenue for investigating ethics complaints -- after release of the Legislature's Troopergate investigation last Friday. The Legislature's investigator concluded that Palin was within her rights to fire Monegan as public safety commissioner, but abused her power and broke the ethics law in joining her husband to push for the firing of Wooten, who was once married to the governor's sister.

Palin reversed an earlier pledge and refused to cooperate with the Legislature's investigation, calling it politically biased. In an unusual twist, she filed the ethics complaint against herself before the board, saying she hoped to "clear the air" by an inquiry through proper channels. She asked the board to decide if she broke ethics laws or acted improperly in dismissing Monegan or in dealing with Wooten -- basically the same ground Branchflower covered.

Petumenos has requested a copy of Friday's legislative report, including confidential backup material, said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, chairman of the Legislative Council. Elton said the council will meet Thursday to vote on whether to give Petumenos all the material gathered by its investigator, Steve Branchflower.

Petumenos was hired by the Personnel Board to handle the case because the state attorney general's office, which normally investigates ethics charges, would have a conflict investigating the governor.

Under the state's inscrutable system for investigating official ethics complaints, there's no way to tell how long Petumenos' investigation might take. The Personnel Board, made up of three gubernatorial appointees, has meetings scheduled for Oct. 20 and Nov. 3. Agendas for those meetings mention confidential ethics matters to be handled in executive session.

Nor is there any certainty, if the complaints are settled or dismissed, that the results of the investigation will ever be made public. A review of recent Personnel Board cases, however, suggests it's likely most information will eventually be released.

Palin has been involved in Personnel Board investigations before -- though not as a subject of complaint -- and at the time complained about their secrecy.

In high-profile cases that established her statewide reputation as an ethics reformer, Palin helped with a 2003 investigation of Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who was working on a state oil regulatory panel, and she co-filed a complaint in 2004 against then-attorney general Gregg Renkes.

Both men were found by investigators to have crossed ethical lines. Details of the investigations were released in the end, as part of a settlement that stopped short of the full public hearing before an administrative law judge that the law requires in serious cases.

In the Ruedrich case, Palin resigned her state job in protest while the investigation was still secret, saying she felt implicated in a cover-up because of the shroud.

"I'd like to find a hero in the Legislature who can take on and change that law and make it more sensible," Palin said at the time she resigned. As governor, she has supported changes to ethics laws, but the secrecy of board investigations has not been changed.

Palin fired Monegan in July and the legislative inquiry began later that month.

Four days after her Aug. 29 selection as John McCain's Republican vice presidential candidate, Palin's lawyer filed an official ethics complaint over the Monegan affair with the Personnel Board, urging the Legislature to give way. The Legislature refused, creating parallel investigations.

Judging from Petumenos' letters on the case, he feels able to range as broadly as Branchflower into subjects related to the original ethics complaints.

One element will distinguish the Personnel Board inquiry: It will have Palin's cooperation.

Sarah and Todd Palin have agreed to be interviewed by Petumenos at the end of next week, said Meg Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign. She said Monday she has no other details of the arrangement.

There's another distinction: While the Legislature's inquiry ended last Friday with vague talk of further action, the official investigation can bring legal consequences under the state ethics law.

The three current members of the Personnel Board were appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski. Palin reappointed one, Debra English of Anchorage, last January.

The three unsalaried appointees usually handle less momentous matters at quarterly lunch meetings, said Dianne Kiesel, deputy director of the Alaska Division of Personnel and Labor Relations in the state Department of Administration. The board approves changes to state work rules such as promotion, pay and leave regulations.

Meanwhile, many ethics complaints filed against state employees -- accusing someone of driving a state vehicle after hours, say, or of providing rude service -- get handled by ethics supervisors inside the different state departments. The Personnel Board gets a summary report but is not involved.

It's the unusual case that becomes a big job requiring extra board meetings.

"Most all of these things get resolved before or at the accusation stage," said assistant attorney general Judy Bockmon. "Very few matters have actually gone to hearing."

Palin explicitly waived her right to confidentiality in her complaint to the Personnel Board. But days later, the McCain-Palin campaign said the investigation would remain secret at the request of Petumenos.

"The governor will respect that request, but will explore the means by which confidentiality may be waived once the investigation is complete," said Stapleton.

In two recent letters to Anchorage lawyer Meg Simonian, who was threatening a lawsuit to force more public scrutiny, Petumenos said the investigation had spread to other officials and other complaints.

"The Governor does not have the right, under such circumstances, to waive the right of confidentiality for others," Petumenos wrote. But he tried to reassure Simonian about the eventual release of the investigation.

"The Board is ... mindful of the public interest and the interest in the credibility to its processes that public disclosure would provide," Petumenos said.

Simonian, a registered Democrat who said she is pursuing the matter out of personal interest, said Monday she wants Petumenos to tease out the parts of his report involving Palin, so that those parts of the upcoming Personnel Board meetings can be public -- if, indeed, the board is discussing that topic.

"I'm in this bind where nobody knows what the board is doing," Simonian said.


Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 1-907-235-4244.


On the investigation's scope

"... (I)t has become clear that the conduct of other state employees or officials besides the governor will be the subject of inquiry. The Independent Counsel, while investigating a matter referred to it, must necessarily follow all investigatory leads, and consider the conduct of any person involved in matters referred to it. Moreover, the statute requires referral to other agencies of pertinent matters and advice to the State government where practices or procedures merit review. Thus, the inquiry is not necessarily strictly limited to the Disclosure filed before it, and in any case, this matter has been consolidated with another complaint."

-- Tim Petumenos, state Personnel Board independent counsel, in a Sept. 29 letter to Meg Simonian

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