Gov. Sarah Palin reportedly now has more than $600,000 in legal bills as a result of ethics complaints, and a national campaign fueled by a conservative Web site reports bringing in more than $100,000 in the past week to her defense fund.
The accusations are described by Palin supporters as frivolous attacks, and the governor's office says 14 complaints have been dismissed so far with no finding she violated the state ethics act. But it is not clear how much of Palin's bills were the result of an ethics complaint she initiated herself and one she settled by agreeing to reimburse the state $10,000 of her children's state-funded travel expenses.
Palin herself triggered the state Personnel Board's investigation of her on the so-called "Troopergate" affair last fall when she sent an ethics disclosure into the board. Palin did so because, she contended, the Legislature's investigation of the issue was politicized and she was seeking the appropriate venue.
Other complaints have not been settled, and Kristan Cole, the trustee for the legal defense fund, said the bills continue to climb and "my sense is they are over $600,000." Palin in March had pegged the debt at that time as more than $500,000.
Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, would not give a case-by-case accounting of how Palin has incurred so much legal debt, saying "that type of breakdown is protected by the attorney-client privilege." Palin's personal spokeswoman, Meghan Stapleton, did not respond to inquiries about whether the governor would waive the privilege and release that information.
Palin's friends and supporters created the legal defense fund, called the Alaska Fund Trust, in April. It's not known how much it has raised so far. The trust has no oversight from the state or federal political watchdog agencies. The Federal Election Commission said it's a state issue, and the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which oversees campaign spending and the financial disclosures of state elected officials, has no plan to get involved in regulating it, officials said.
Cole said there are no legal requirements for the trust to register with either of those agencies or to disclose its donors. But Cole said she nevertheless will put the names of all donors and the amounts they gave on the legal defense fund's public Web site four times a year, with the first posting likely in early August.
"Our trust is one of the most, if not the most, restrictive and transparent legal expense funds in history," asserted Cole, a longtime friend of Palin's.
Cole says there is no legal limit on how much people can donate to the fund, but it has a self-imposed maximum contribution of $150.
The Alaska Executive Branch Ethics act says that anything over $150 must be disclosed as a gift within 30 days of receiving it. Cole said that is not the reason it was chosen as the limit.
"It's because this has really been a grass-roots effort from the beginning and a lot of the folks, including myself, thought in order for it to be as inclusive as possible we would keep the limit low so everyone feels like they can donate and be a part of it, and their donation is just as important as the next person," Cole said.
Cole said that any donations over $150 will be returned and one reason the disclosure hasn't happened yet is to make sure that all of the donors are following the rules set up by the trust.
"You just cannot believe how many people really believe in this governor like I do and others do and are sending in checks for 5 and 10 dollars, saying this is all I have at this time but I'll send you another 5 dollars in two months," Cole said.
"It's really incredible."
Palin also has a national political action committee, SarahPAC, separately raising money for her political activities. That is under the regulation of the FEC.
LUCRATIVE BOOK DEAL
The governor last month signed a book deal with HarperCollins Publishers. She wouldn't say how much it was worth but industry speculation ran into the millions of dollars. She likely would receive her money in installments. Cole said that, regardless of the deal, there is still a need for the legal defense fund.
"I don't have any idea regarding her book deal or any of the details of that," Cole said. "What I can tell you is that this fund was set up to pay for her legal defense of really the frivolous ethics complaints."
Rebecca Mansour of the Web site Conservatives4Palin, which did a "webathon" for the legal defense fund over the past week, said Palin has been unfairly targeted after returning home from running for vice president and deserves the help. Mansour said one reason for the webathon is because the fund set its maximum contribution at $150, which rules out the kind of $5,000 donation Alaska Rep. Don Young received from Trident Seafoods Corp. for his legal defense fund.
"The only way they are going to be able to pay it off is to cast a huge net and get (many) people donating," said Mansour, of Los Angeles.
Conservatives4Palin tried to get Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and others to publicize the fund, and Mansour called into G. Gordon Liddy and other shows to talk about it. Other conservative blogs spread the word. The webathon was about advertising and steering potential donors to the fund rather than collecting money directly. It asked people to donate to Palin's fund and then let the site know how much, so it could update the dollar count of the webathon, which had a goal of raising $500,000.
Anchorage activist Andree McLeod brought up the webathon as she urged the Alaska Public Offices Commission last week to begin regulating the governor's defense fund.
She testified that there's no oversight as national personalities are advertising the fundraising and "organizers are encouraging people who have already given the limit to give money to other people to send to the fund ... please protect the public's right to know what this rogue governor is up to."
McLeod has had multiple ethics complaints against Palin dismissed, although, in response to one of her complaints, a personnel board investigator did recommend ethics training for a close aide of the governor's.
McLeod gave the APOC commissioners a screenshot of a comment with Mansour's name on it, left during an early morning discussion of a post on the Web site. "For everyone who gave the full donation ... get your spouse, parent, sibling, child, etc. to give to. Heck, give 'em the money to give," the comment said.
Mansour said she didn't recall the comment when asked about it, but said she didn't intend to try and skirt the self-imposed limit set by the fund.
"Encourage them to donate should have been the wording of it. This is coming from ordinary Americans, the idea that this would be undue influence is kind of silly to me," Mansour said. On an earlier comment she'd asked people to "be creative but work within the rules."
The formal webathon wrapped up Sunday night but Conservatives4Palin said it will try to keep publicizing the effort and hopes to eventually reach its goal of $500,000.