Senate finds ten in contempt over Troopergate subpoenas

TODD PALIN, OTHERS: No punishment urged in troopergate matter.

February 6, 2009 

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Senate voted Friday to find Gov. Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, and nine Palin aides in contempt for failing to show up when ordered by subpoena to testify in the Legislature's "Troopergate" investigation of the governor.

But the Senate resolution also said there should be no punishment because Todd Palin and the others did eventually submit written statements to the investigator, Steve Branchflower.

The resolution passed on a vote of 16 to 1 -- with six Republicans and 10 Democrats voting for it.

"I thought it was important to resolve it. People kept saying 'you need to do something about the subpoenas -- what are you going to do about the subpoenas?" said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who sponsored the resolution. "And while there was practically no support for doing anything further about the findings regarding the governor, a lot of people were upset that the subpoenas were ignored."

"It memorializes their contempt and it balances that wrongdoing against their compliance once the suit was resolved," French said in an interview after the vote.

Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg had sued to kill the subpoenas on behalf of seven of the Palin aides. It was after his lawsuit failed that all 10 of those subpoenaed submitted written statements, including Todd Palin, who was not part of the court fight.

Both Colberg and the governor's office declined to comment on the resolution. Todd Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, has argued that his client filed a proper objection to the subpoena and was not in contempt. Van Flein did not return a call Friday.

But Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell sent French an angry letter Friday afternoon, saying he condemns "your assault on the reputations and due process rights of those named in Senate Resolution 5."

"By passing SR 5, you have effectively smeared reputations with the 'contempt' label, when these individuals simply went to court to assure their rights were upheld and thereafter answered your questions. ... Forever fixing a label to them when they merely exercised their rights is inexcusable," Parnell wrote in the letter.

'REHASH AN OLD ISSUE'

Named in the resolution are Todd Palin and top aides to the Republican governor, including her chief of staff, Mike Nizich, state commissioner of administration Annette Kreitzer, and close confidantes of Palin's such as Kris Perry and Ivy Frye.

Every member of the bipartisan Senate majority coalition voted for the resolution.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Con Bunde was the only senator to vote against it. All of Bunde's fellow members of the Senate minority -- Republican Sens. Fred Dyson, Gene Therriault and Tom Wagoner -- were all excused from legislative business Friday, but likely would have joined Bunde in opposition if they were present.

"We rehash an old issue and then decide to do nothing about it," Bunde said as he objected to the resolution on the floor of the Senate. "I hope that's not our best."

But Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer said he sees the resolution as a way to move on from the battles over the investigation. "It's to bring closure to the whole issue," he said.

The "Troopergate" investigation got nasty last fall as Palin ran for vice president, with her surrogates claiming a witch hunt. Branchflower's report for the Legislature concluded that Palin broke ethics law and abused her power in allowing her husband and top aides to push for the firing of a state trooper who is her former brother-in-law. But a second report, conducted by attorney Tim Petumenos for the state personnel board, came to the opposite conclusion and did not find Palin abused her power.

The state House isn't planning a similar contempt resolution because it's the Senate Judiciary Committee that issued the subpoenas.

French, who chairs the judiciary committee and oversaw the investigation, said the subpoenas were clearly lawful and the resolution affirms the Legislature's right to issue them. He said the attorney general waited until the last minute to file a lawsuit against them that was "tossed out of court on its ear."

'SIGNIFICANT AND SERIOUS QUESTIONS'

State statute provides for fines and a maximum of six months in jail for contempt of legislative subpoenas.

But French said there wasn't desire in the Senate for any punishment, given what he described as the mitigating circumstance of swift cooperation by the subpoeaned witnesses after the lawsuit failed. French said it's not necessarily his view, but that many legislators see what happened in this case as akin to driving 56 mph in a 55 mph zone.

"You can say you broke the law, you went 56 miles an hour, but not every violation of the law gets punished," he said.

French said he believes the resolution struck the right balance. But he left open the possibility of future action against the state attorney general. "I don't want to get sidetracked by the attorney general's performance in this episode, but it's worth pointing out that this resolution does not resolve questions -- significant and serious questions -- about his actions during this time," he said on the Senate floor.

French said in a subsequent interview, though, that he is not sure exactly what more is to be done.

"The difficulty is coming to any conclusion about what he did because none of us were in the room. ... It would be very difficult," he said.

French said Colberg broke a deal with lawmakers to cooperate with the subpoenas. Several legislators also question the attorney general's advising state employees they didn't have to honor subpoenas.

Colberg, a Palin appointee, has said he doesn't believe he did anything wrong. He said he just gave legal options to the seven state employees he was representing in the matter and they decided how they wanted to proceed. Colberg said he filed the lawsuit as soon as possible, and it was his right to do so.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service