Former safety commissioner puts Troopergate behind him

NATIVE JUSTICE: Monegan settles into new job doing what he loves.

May 28, 2011 

Former Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was fired by then-Gov. Sarah Palin because, he claims, he refused to fire an Alaska State Trooper who had gone through a contentious divorce with Palin's sister.

MARK THIESSEN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

If Walt Monegan ever writes an autobiography, the fallout from being fired as Alaska's public safety commissioner by former Gov. Sarah Palin would be reduced to one short, stormy chapter about the controversy that became known nationally as Troopergate.

Monegan has since moved on to sunnier chapters. He is enjoying his new job heading the nonprofit organization that serves as a bridge between Alaska Natives and the state's judicial system.

"I'm still doing the things that I loved doing before, but in a different capacity," he said in a recent interview in which he recalled his sudden termination by the potential presidential candidate.

Monegan, who turned 60 on Monday, was ousted as safety commissioner in July 2008 after, he claims, he refused to fire Palin's former brother-in-law, a state trooper who had gone through a contentious divorce with Palin's sister. Soon after Monegan lost his job, Palin burst into prominence as the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.

"I think there for a while I was probably the most famous fired guy," he said, laughing, in his office at the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Justice Center, where Monegan, who is part Native, serves as president and CEO.

Palin's attorney, John Tiemessen, declined to comment.

To this day, Monegan maintains he felt pressured by Palin, her husband Todd and members of the Palin administration to fire trooper Mike Wooten starting soon after Palin took office in December 2006. But, he acknowledged, they never directly asked for that.

The Palins said Wooten had driven drunk, hunted illegally and committed child abuse, among other accusations. Todd Palin has said the family was concerned about the governor's safety.

Monegan said he told Todd Palin he would review the allegations. But he concluded the matter was properly resolved with a 2005 internal trooper investigation that led to Wooten being disciplined for illegally killing a moose and using a Taser stun gun on an 11-year-old family member. Wooten still works as a trooper.

Sarah Palin initially said no one in her administration put any pressure on Monegan -- she simply wanted the department to head in a new direction. She then cited budgetary disagreements. She also said Monegan wasn't doing enough about alcohol abuse in rural Alaska, even though Monegan, at his firing, was offered the directorship of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which he declined.

Palin later said she had learned that at least two dozen calls were made from her staff members questioning Wooten's employment, but added none was done at her direction. A month after Monegan's dismissal, Palin released a recorded copy of a phone conversation between a trooper official and Palin staffer Frank Bailey, who is heard saying, "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn't this, why is this guy still representing the department?' "

Bailey, who at the time said he acted alone, has since co-authored a book critical of the ex-governor. The book, "Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin," was released Tuesday.

Just before Palin was named as John McCain's running mate, state lawmakers moved to launch an investigation into Monegan's firing that ultimately concluded the governor broke an ethics law prohibiting her as governor from using a state office for personal gain. The firing itself was considered lawful since Monegan was an employee who could be dismissed at will.

Palin initially said she would cooperate with the Legislature's probe. But after joining the GOP ticket, she said the investigation had become too political. She initiated a separate investigation by the state personnel board. The day before the presidential election, that investigation concluded Palin violated no ethics laws.

As Palin stumped across the country to adoring crowds, Monegan tried to shake off the shock and confusion of being terminated "out of the blue," he said.

"It was a time that I desperately wanted to close that chapter," he said. "It was a very uncomfortable time."

Strangers were a great source of comfort for Monegan and his wife, he said.

"We'd be in a mall, a store, walking down a sidewalk and we'd get contacted by individuals who'd just walk up, extend their hand and say, 'You know, we believe you,' " he said.

Less than a year later, Palin also was out of her state job, abruptly resigning in July 2009 with 17 months left in her first term. At the time, Palin partly blamed the toll of multiple ethics complaints she called frivolous. She has since published two bestselling books, been a regular commentator on Fox News, starred in an eight-part documentary series, amassed more than 3 million Facebook followers and is embarking on a campaign-style bus tour along the East Coast. She remains hugely popular with tea party conservatives, and is making a weekend bus tour up the East Coast that many see as a testing of the waters for a 2012 presidential run.

In his post-Troopergate career, Monegan first worked as a substitute elementary school teacher, then as a cultural awareness specialist with the Anchorage School District before taking the helm of the Alaska Native Justice Center in January.

He exhibits no bitterness over Troopergate, and said he would sit down for coffee with Palin. A year ago, he was attending a seafood festival in Anchorage when he heard someone call out his name. It was Palin's father, Chuck Heath.

"He shook my hand and gave me a hug," Monegan said. "He says, 'It's all politics, but I still count you as a friend.' "

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