Alaskans now have dueling perspectives on Gov. Sarah Palin's handling of Troopergate. The state personnel board's investigator, Tim Petumenos, says she didn't violate the state ethics law; the legislature's investigator Steve Branchflower concluded that she did.
Gov. Palin won't face any sanctions from the personnel board, but the Legislature is free to follow up its findings in January in any way it sees fit.
Alaskans would benefit if the Legislature arranged a public forum where the two drastically different accounts are debated and tested. It would help Alaskans make sense of the two investigators' conflicting views of state ethics law and the available evidence.
Petumenos interpreted the law and his evidence in a way highly favorable to Gov. Palin; Branchflower was far less inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
In fact, Petumenos' analysis reads as if it could have been written by the governor's own defense lawyer. His exoneration of Palin was conveniently released just a day before voters nationwide decided on her bid for the vice-presidency.
Petumenos said any complaints Gov. Palin made about her ex-brother-in-law Trooper Mike Wooten -- and at least four were documented in e-mails -- were merely examples used to illustrate her legitimate views on other questions of state policy.
As to the repeated, widespread inquiries her husband and staff made about Wooten, Petumenos said he found no evidence she knew about them.
Not until page 54 of his exoneration does Petumenos mention that the most likely source of such evidence is gone. Gov. Palin routinely used her private e-mail account to conduct state business, and those e-mails, Petumenos reports, are irretrievably deleted from her e-mail service.
Petumenos acknowledges that Gov. Palin's use of private e-mail for state business violates the state's record retention policy. She claims she was told her e-mail arrangements complied with the policy, but Petumenos presents no evidence showing who gave her the advice, or confirming what that advice was. He accepts the governor's claim at face value, even while he says her interpretation was flatly wrong.
At this point, a truly independent investigator might be curious about whether Gov. Palin or anybody else obstructed justice by eliminating e-mail evidence. But Petumenos blithely refused to admit such a trail might exist, let alone follow it.
In the report, Petumenos takes the Troopergate case incident by incident, contact by contact, and dismisses the legal significance of each one. He never pulls back to see the big picture, which Gov. Palin herself has acknowledged. When she released Frank Bailey's taped call to troopers about Wooten, she said "The serial nature of the contacts could be perceived as some kind of pressure, presumably at my direction."
Petumenos doesn't even concede that much. Gov. Palin said she didn't know all those contacts were going on and that's it -- case closed. She flatly denies Walt Monegan's sworn testimony suggesting the contrary; Petumenos just lets that dispute go, as something he'd never be able to sort out. If Alaska law enforcement had investigators with that attitude, nobody would ever be convicted of anything.
Petumenos says he interviewed more people than Branchflower did, including Gov. Palin herself, therefore his report for the personnel board is more reliable. True, Petumenos did talk to more witnesses, but he took Gov. Palin and her staff at their word unless contradictory evidence dropped in his lap.
QUESTIONABLE VIEW OF LAW
But none of that matters anyway, says Petumenos, because state ethics law doesn't require her to rein in her husband or even her staff in a situation like this. Her husband is a private citizen with the right to contact state officials, just like anyone else, Petumenos said. What her staff did, Petumenos says, gave no "benefit" to Gov. Palin or anyone else, so the conduct doesn't fall under state ethics law.
That's an overly generous interpretation on both counts. The governor's spouse is not a citizen just like any other Alaskan. He is married to the governor. Todd Palin often operated out of the governor's office. Any high-ranking official who didn't heed the governor's spouse might be looking for trouble, as Walt Monegan discovered.
And it is definitely not OK for a governor's staff to spend a great deal of their publicly paid time settling a personal score for the governor's family. Petumenos uses some creative legal hairsplitting to argue that state ethics law does not cover that kind of behavior, when the plain language easily supports the opposite conclusion.
Petumenos' report is so obviously tilted in favor of Gov. Palin that it fails to put the Troopergate matter to rest. The Legislature would do Alaskans a service by holding a forum where both investigators argue against each other, so Alaskans can make up their own minds.