Troopers union backs off charge of political interference

INQUIRY: There were no delays for political reasons in Johnston drug case.

January 5, 2009 

The union representing state troopers has backed off allegations that a drug investigation of Sherry Johnston was slowed down last fall to shield the national candidacy of Gov. Sarah Palin.

An inquiry Monday by officials for the Public Safety Employees Association concluded that investigators did not delay a search warrant for political reasons, said union president Rob Cox. Charges of political meddling erupted last week because of misunderstandings between investigators working on the case and senior state public safety officials, Cox said.

The drug-selling case against Johnston -- whose son, Levi, is the father of Palin's new grandson, Tripp -- did draw unusual scrutiny from top public safety officials, Cox said. He said union and state officials hope to meet Tuesday to sort out any misunderstandings and determine whether political considerations had any effect at all.

"At this point, it really is a non-issue," Cox said.

Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters issued a statement late Monday, repeating his assertion that the governor's office was never clued in to the drug investigation and that trooper leaders were only trying to assure that the case was handled like any other.

"Events nationally, and their affects (sic) locally, certainly may have influenced Ms. Johnston's behaviors and ultimately the timeline of the case," Masters said. "However, the accusations that political motives were behind the decision on how to manage this case are baseless."

WRONG ABOUT WARRANT

A national flare-up of news coverage on the political meddling charge was triggered by the leak last week of an internal union e-mail written by a state trooper involved in the Johnston case. Trooper Kyle Young asserted that service of the search warrant against Johnston was delayed for political reasons, saying that after it was clear who the target was "this case became anything but normal."

Union officials backed up Young at first, saying they were confident and the handling of the case "smacked of political favoritism." The union said it had verified his allegations with the rest of the Mat-Su drug unit, including case officer Donna Anthony.

But on Monday, Cox said Young had played a secondary role in the case and turned out to be wrong about the warrant. Cox said Anthony told him Monday the search warrant against Johnston would not have been ready to serve before the election, regardless of the political climate.

Johnston was arrested Dec. 18, the day the warrant was served. At her arraignment in state court Monday she pleaded not guilty to six felony counts of possessing and selling OxyContin.

Even before last week, relations between the public safety union and the governor's office were raw. The two sides had sparred in recent months over removal of Walt Monegan as public safety commissioner, and allegations Palin pressured officials to fire a trooper who was her ex-brother-in-law.

Union officials stressed Monday that they had not gone out of their way to pick a fight over the Johnston case. Executive director John Cyr said Young never intended his e-mail to become political fodder.

"He was shocked when it leaked to the press," Cyr said, "and now I'm cleaning up the mess."

Young sent the e-mail to all the union members in the state.

OVERREACTIONS

The whole fracas started, Cox said, when Masters -- appointed by Palin in September -- issued a press release last week sternly correcting sworn trooper testimony regarding Secret Service protection in the Johnston case.

Masters said investigators wrongly asserted that Johnston was under federal protection during the campaign. Young responded -- and the union agreed -- that Masters was overreacting: Secret Service protection had indeed affected Levi's mother's behavior, even if she wasn't afforded direct protection. Young said the troopers on the case appeared to be getting smeared because of political pressure.

"It made the drug unit look pretty bad, and I don't think that was his intention," Cox said of Masters' original press release.

That's how there were misunderstandings on both sides, Cox said: Masters with his press release, and Young in his response to the press release. A meeting Tuesday should help sort all this out, he said.

"Hopefully we're willing to take egg on our faces together rather than cover up, as so often happens in political cases," Cox said.

Masters said in his statement Monday the administration hopes to work with the union to resolve such disputes. He ended on a frosty note: "We certainly would have been open to communications with the union regarding its perceptions of this case if it had come forward with its concerns."

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

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