Portrayal in Palin book irritates former aide

'PILLORIED': Former legislative director Bitney says she turned him into "the big bad wolf."

November 23, 2009 

Former Gov. Sarah Palin's book, "Going Rogue," blames her first legislative director for moves early in her term that helped poison her relationship with state lawmakers. But the ex-aide, John Bitney, calls Palin's account a fabrication and said he wishes his former boss would leave him alone.

"I'm just pilloried right and left and turned into the big bad wolf here for stuff I didn't do," said Bitney, who is now an aide to Valdez Republican Rep. John Harris. "It's like I'm this fictional character that she's decided to make me out to be this sort of incompetent slob."

Palin's lawyer, Tom Van Flein, responded in an e-mail that Bitney and others have been talking about "their perceptions of, and distortions about" Palin for more than a year, since after she was chosen as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate.

" 'Going Rogue' is Sarah Palin's book to set the record straight. It is her right to speak about the events that occurred in her administration and neither Mr. Bitney nor anyone else has the right to stifle that speech," Van Flein said. "The statements in 'Going Rogue' speak for themselves, and it is Sarah Palin's turn to get the truth out there after a year of misrepresentations, half-truths and dissembling by her critics."

Palin's writing about Bitney is her most detailed description yet of incidents that helped shape her relationship with legislators. Her bad blood with top legislators of both parties began not long after she took office. By last spring, relationships with many lawmakers from both parties had soured to the point that feuds with the governor overshadowed much of the other legislative business.

Bitney joins a list of people slammed in the book who are calling it fiction, including McCain's former campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. Bitney, though, has a far deeper relationship with Palin than the others. He was a high school classmate of Palin's from Wasilla who played a key role as an adviser in her successful 2006 campaign for governor.

Palin's dealings with Bitney are described on several pages of her memoir, although he is never named and there are no details of his work on her 2006 campaign. Palin refers to him as "my first legislative director" and he comes in for some of the harshest criticism of anyone in the book. That includes observations on his personal grooming, such as, "He turned out to be a BlackBerry games addict who couldn't seem to keep his lunch off his tie." Later, in describing one encounter to discuss the budget, Palin writes, "The fact that his shirt was buttoned one button off and his shirt tail was poking through his open fly didn't exactly inspire confidence." But Palin's larger point is that Bitney bungled her relationship with legislators.

Bitney is now swinging back hard at Palin, agreeing to appear over the weekend on a television show hosted by one of the former governor's most vocal critics in Alaska, blogger Shannyn Moore. Bitney was on a panel of others slammed in "Going Rogue" that included Palin nemesis Andrew Halcro and Anne Kilkenney, who wrote a long e-mail critical of Palin's leadership in Wasilla that was forwarded around the country during the presidential campaign last year.

Moore asked Bitney if Palin is sane. Bitney's response: "Is a sociopath sane?"

'ADULT IN THE HOUSE'

One turning point between Palin and Alaska lawmakers came in 2007 after her first legislative session. Legislators complained that Palin blindsided them with the scope of her budget vetoes and she rubbed it in by saying there had to be an "adult in the house." Legislators saw it as a slap in the face and the remark was not forgotten.

Palin writes that it was Bitney who advised her to tell lawmakers that they were in need of adult supervision. In fact, she writes, he told her, "Trust me, I know this stuff, they want to hear it."

Palin writes that she followed his advice and had a "come-to-Jesus meeting" with legislators. But, as it turned out, that's not what they wanted to hear. She writes that "when the fallout began after that meeting, I looked at the legislative director. He looked at the ground and shrugged as if to say 'Wasn't me.' "

Bitney said in an interview that he joked with Palin in her office about how there needs to be an adult in the room when it comes to the state budget, but he said he never advised the then-governor to say it to anyone. He said Palin then made the comment in an interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial board -- not in a "come-to-Jesus" meeting with legislators as she recounts in her book.

Bitney left the governor's office in July 2007 in what Palin's spokeswoman initially said was an "amicable" termination in which it was mutually agreed that he would leave his post for personal reasons. When reporters raised questions about it during the presidential campaign, the reason given by Palin's office was "poor job performance."

Bitney has told reporters he was fired after Palin was informed he was having an affair with the wife of a friend of Palin and her husband, Todd. Bitney, who has since married the woman, has said he was not forthcoming with Palin about it and understands why he had to go.

Palin's only reference to that in her book is that "later we learned the legislative director had been too busy with his personal affairs to attend to much state business."

'LEAVE ME ALONE'

Bitney has influential defenders in the Legislature, including Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who has been critical of Palin and said he won't read her book because she is "entertainment and not news." Stedman said Bitney is qualified and that he did a good job dealing with the Legislature for Palin. He said he told Bitney at one point to let him know if he was ever looking for a job.

Palin writes that she told Bitney to send a letter to legislators about what sort of spending she would approve but that he didn't do it. She said he indicated lawmakers were fine with budget vetoes that were coming but it became clear otherwise when they howled about being blindsided. "It soon became obvious just how little the legislative director had done to inform the legislature this was coming," she writes.

Bitney said it was another staffer in the governor's office, not him, who was requested to send the letter. The letter asked legislators for suggestions on which of their projects to cut, Bitney said, and not surprisingly they did not rush to answer Palin.

Bitney said he did meet with the four co-chairs of the state House and Senate finance committees to tell them about the coming vetoes, and reported back to Palin that three of them felt that was her prerogative and only one became angry.

But Palin staffers had only identified about $100 million worth of cuts by that point, about half of the final total. Bitney said the following day was when his "troubles" with Palin began. He said he was pulled from the governor's budget work, and fired soon after. In the meantime, he said, Palin staffers kept cutting beyond what he had told legislators but he didn't have authority to talk to them about it.

Palin uses Bitney in the book to illustrate a point about government. Bitney had years of experience as a legislative staffer and lobbyist before joining her team. "So much for my idea that I needed to hire an 'insider.' Lesson learned," she writes.

Bitney said he tried to be fair to Palin when national media kept "crawling up my backside" over the past year to interview him about her. But the book is too much, he said.

"I've had it. Enough. Just enough; leave me alone," he said.


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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