After months on the vice presidential campaign trial, Sarah Palin stepped back into her job as governor Friday with an Alaska controversy still unsettled: Troopergate.
But it's looking like the public may never get a clear answer about what really happened. Two highly anticipated investigations came up with dramatically different results, and lawmakers seem poised to move on.
State legislators interviewed this week say they haven't come to a consensus on what should happen next, although some said they plan to look further at side issues about personnel complaints in general, subpoenas, and the use of private e-mail accounts.
The first report, done for the Legislature by retired state prosecutor Steve Branchflower, concluded that Palin abused her power in allowing her husband and top aides to push for the firing of a state trooper who is her ex-brother-in-law. Failure to stop these activities violated the state ethics law, Branchflower said.
The second -- done for the state Personnel Board by Tim Petumenos, a prosecutor turned defense lawyer -- came to the opposite conclusion, finding that Palin didn't know what her family or staff were doing so couldn't be held responsible.
Even if she did know, he says, there's no evidence that she or anyone else violated the state Ethics Act.
And there it sits, unresolved and likely to remain so.
"As far as I can see, we've reached the end of the line as far as the Senate is concerned," said Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, tapped to be Senate president when the Legislature convenes in January.
The incoming House speaker, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he hadn't had time to give it a lot of thought and considered the matter "blown out of proportion."
"I think there are still a number of questions out there, dealing with the subpoenas and the authority and certainly whether there were any violations of any ethics codes," Chenault said.
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Trooper Mike Wooten went through a bitter divorce with Palin's sister and was the target of complaints by Palin and her family starting in 2005. After she was elected in 2006, the complaints, especially from Palin's husband, Todd, escalated. Both reports found that Todd, often operating out of the governor's office, complained relentlessly about Wooten to top administration officials.
In July, Palin fired her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, igniting the controversy that lingers today.
Branchflower concluded the firing was due in part to Monegan's refusal to get rid of Wooten.
Whatever the facts around Wooten, both reports found that Palin had the right to fire the commissioner, a department head who served at her pleasure.
TWO INVESTIGATORS, TWO TRUTHS
How could two experienced investigators reach opposite conclusions after examining the same case? In part, the two lawyers approached the evidence from different perspectives.
Branchflower looked at the totality of events, examined the law, then concluded yes, ethics rules were violated by Palin's failure to stop unethical behavior by others, notably her husband.
Petumenos looked at individual acts and asked if they were legal. He found that a legal justification could be offered for each one.
For instance, even if the governor did contact Monegan to ask about the status of Wooten, which she denies, it could have been in the wider interest of public safety, Petumenos said.
"When you break down the events, is there a chain that holds this all together?" Petumenos said in an interview this week. "No." He didn't find evidence that Palin herself pressured others to do something about Wooten.
Another difference between the two investigations: Palin cooperated with Petumenos but not Branchflower.
Petumenos took sworn testimony from both Palins as well as from her top aides. Late in his investigation, Branchflower got written answers to questions he had submitted to Todd Palin and some aides, but never from the governor.
Petumenos also had access to thousands of e-mails from Palin and state employees, far more than Branchflower. Petumenos said he wasn't confident he had all the evidence because of Palin's use of private e-mail accounts and the deletion of some e-mails.
DID ANYONE LIE?
Among the questions unlikely to be answered to the satisfaction of both sides is: What did the governor know about her husband's contacts with other state officials?
In her sworn testimony to Petumenos, Palin said she didn't know that Todd had been talking to Monegan about Wooten in early 2007. She testified that she told her husband early in her administration to stop talking to her about Wooten because she was sick of hearing about him.
But in an e-mail she sent to Monegan on Feb. 7, 2007, she says: " ... I know Todd's even expressed to you a lot of concern about our family's safety after this trooper threatened to kill a family member."
Not proof of what she knew, according to Petumenos. The governor could have been referring to concerns about security that the Palins raised with troopers back in December.
So did Palin lie? Did Monegan?
Palin says she never talked to Monegan about Wooten; Monegan says there was a phone call and one short face-to-face conversation that he cut off.
Monegan says his memories are clear but agrees the governor never asked him directly to fire Wooten.
"Obviously there were a couple of differences of recollections and of intentions and of context," Palin said Friday.
In view of that, the question becomes: Should Gov. Palin have stopped her husband from pursuing the Wooten matter with her staff?
Branchflower's report concludes that failing to do so breached her ethical obligations.
But according to Petumenos, even if the governor knew what her husband was up to, she had no legal obligation to stop him.
Was there perhaps a moral obligation? That was not an issue before the Personnel Board, Petumenos said. The job of the Personnel Board was to read the law and see if any laws were violated.
Todd Palin is a private citizen and not covered by the Executive Ethics Act.
"At the end of the day, you have to point me to a statute that says a public official is responsible for a private citizen," Petumenos said. "There isn't one."
First spouses are free to contact public officials just as any private citizen can, he said. Of course, it's unlikely that many commissioners and top officials would take an ordinary citizen's phone call or show up for time-consuming meetings to discuss a grievance, but that they did so for Todd Palin is completely legal, he said.
Branchflower disagrees. The governor was responsible for her husband, his report says. He concluded Palin knew her husband was asking high state officials about Wooten -- and didn't do anything to curtail him.
"She had the authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act," Branchflower writes in his report.
Todd Palin's contacts with the governor's employees created conflicts of interest for those employees, Branchflower wrote. 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 the very reason the Ethics Act was promulgated by the Legislature."
Top officials reacted to Todd Palin because he was the governor's husband.
"You know, when the first gentleman comes into your office and says you got a problem, you sort of feel compelled to look into it and see if something can be done," John Bitney, former aide to the governor, said in his September deposition.
In his own statement to Branchflower, Todd Palin defends his role and says people who criticize him are applying a double standard because his wife is the state's first female governor.
Legislators say they are not interested in trying to legally define a first spouse's role.
"I'm not comfortable saying this is what the first lady or the first gentleman, you know, is allowed to do," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat and outgoing chairman of the Legislative Council that hired Branchflower.
"I guess I expect that is a role that is perhaps best defined by the two, by the partners," he said.
"I think the governor has learned a lesson from this," said Rep. Chenault. "She needs to lead by example and she needs to set the rules for state employees and maybe her husband."
Legislators say they intend to address some side issues raised by the dueling reports. They include:
Subpoenas. Seven state employees didn't show up when subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The matter went to court, a judge ruled they were legally required to comply, but ultimately they only answered written questions late in the investigation. The Palin administration is appealing the ruling.
Legislators still want to examine whether there was an abuse of process, Chenault said. State Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, wants to know if there was any witness tampering.
Private e-mails. Petumenos raised concerns about the use of private e-mail accounts for state business. Palin and an aide, Frank Bailey, both deleted some e-mails, though there's no way to know if any were related to the investigation. They testified they were told they didn't have to keep e-mails, but that advice was wrong, Petumenos wrote.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he's looking at the matter but called it "a thorny area."
Personnel complaints. Petumenos says one reason Todd Palin was so persistent is that the family couldn't find out what happened to their complaints over the years. Some, including Wooten, dispute that.
Sens. French and Elton say they want to make it easier for people with complaints about law enforcement officers to find out if the concerns were investigated and maybe the result.
Beyond these peripheral questions, legislators simply don't want to dwell on Troopergate.
"I don't want to see this getting in the way of other things," Elton said. "If it's irresolvable, it's irresolvable."
The Legislative Council Report:
Investigated by: Steve Branchflower, former state prosecutor
Date Started: Aug. 11, 2008
Date Released: Oct. 10, 2008
Length: 263 pages
" 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. "
Personnel Board's Report:
Investigated by: Tim Petumenos, former corruption prosecutor, now in private practice in Anchorage, doing mostly civil cases
Date Started: mid-September
Date Released: Nov. 3, 2008
Length: 125 pages
" Governor Palin, in any event, has testified under oath that she was unaware that Todd Palin made these early 2007 inquiries to Commissioner Monegan. Todd Palin confirmed that he did not discuss either the Monegan meeting or Commissioner Monegan's follow up call with the Governor at any time until the matter became the subject of scrutiny in 2008. "