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Subpoenaed Palin aides could be found in contempt

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

With state officials again defying legislative subpoenas in the investigation of whether Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power, the war between state lawmakers and Alaska's attorney general is escalating.The governor's chief of staff, Mike Nizich, and six other Palin aides didn't show up Friday to honor subpoenas ordering them to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee chairman, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, said they could be found in contempt when the full Legislature convenes in January, a finding that carries potential jail time.

Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Palin appointee, filed a lawsuit late Thursday asking the courts to declare the subpoenas invalid so the state employees would not be punished for ignoring them.

Colberg said his office has told the employees they had a choice to disobey the legislative subpoenas - advice that has state legislators furious.

"We have advised people that is an option. And that we think the subpoenas have flaws," he said.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, charged "there is likely very irresponsible behavior coming from the attorney general." Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowksi, a lawyer who is on the Judiciary Committee, said he is not impressed, either.

"I just can't imagine any attorney advising a client that a subpoena is voluntary," he said.

Colberg's lawsuit argues that the Judiciary Committee did not have the authority to issue the subpoenas, a claim contested by the legislators. Colberg Friday asked the lawmakers to suspend their subpoenas until the court makes its ruling - a process that could run well beyond the Nov. 4 election where Palin is on the Republican ticket for vice president. French refused, saying the attorney general didn't even ask the court for a quick ruling and "has put its lawsuit on a slow track."

Colberg said he didn't ask for a quick ruling on his lawsuit because it's the Legislature that has imposed a deadline for the investigation to be completed. The lawmakers could ask for an expedited ruling if they want, he said.

"If there is urgency, let it be on the other party to explain why this would be on par with, for example a child in need of aid or somebody in danger," he said.

GROWING CRITICISM

Steve Branchflower, the investigator hired by the Legislative council, is supposed to give his report on the investigation Oct. 10. At issue is whether Palin dismissed public safety commissioner Walt Monegan because he wouldn't fire a state trooper who went through an ugly divorce with her sister. The bipartisan Legislative Council passed a resolution that directs Branchflower "to investigate the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch."

Palin initially said she'd cooperate with the investigation - then changed course after her nomination as vice president, saying the Legislature's investigation had been politicized. Palin said the state personnel board, not the Legislature, has jurisdiction and she'd cooperate with its investigation.

That one is out of public view and may not be done before the election.

Colberg is coming under growing fire from legislators and other critics for how he's handled the battle between Alaska's legislative and executive branches. One of the stated aims of a planned "Hold Palin Accountable" protest to be held in Anchorage today is to demand the attorney general's resignation.

"There's talk of the AG, should he be disbarred and could he be disbarred, I just don't know," said Kenai Republican Rep. Mike Chenault.

North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault - who sides with Palin in the investigation - told reporters that "it's my understanding somebody has lodged a complaint" against Colberg. Therriault had no confirmation. Such a complaint likely would be filed with the Alaska Bar Association, but those are confidential.

"I haven't been informed on (a complaint) yet," Colberg said. "But given the number of references to that type of thing I guess that's possible."

'GOOD LEGAL GROUND'

Colberg has defenders in the state Legislature, including North Pole state Rep. John Coghill, who said he believes the legislative investigation is tainted by politics and should be delayed until after the election.

"I think they have some good legal ground, I think the Legislature dangerously went beyond its authority," he said.

Anchorage talk radio has carped on Colberg for going on vacation last week as the controversy raged. Colberg said September is normally a good time for a cabinet member to travel, and the Legislature is not in session.

Colberg said he obviously had no idea when he planned the trip that there would be an investigation or that Palin would be nominated for vice president.

"So in June, I had made arrangements to go on a personal vacation to the four states that I had never been to, focusing on Kansas. And I had made this arrangement with my college roommate of 30 years ago and we had talked about this for about three decades. ... So my trip for one week did occur and I did see all 50 states and I enjoyed the state of Kansas. It's a very nice place, at this time of year, especially so," he said.

Colberg said he actually spent most of the trip on the phone dealing with what's become known as the Troopergate investigation.

Colberg said the Legislature's investigation is politicized. He said he's trying to insert some objectivity into the process by taking the subpoenas to court so a judge can sort it out.

WHO IS PAYING THE BILLS?

Colberg said an example showing how the Legislature's investigation is flawed was lawmakers choosing not to subpoena former Palin chief of staff Mike Tibbles, who is now managing U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' campaign for re-election.

"(Tibbles is) a key witness by any measure, and they said we won't subpoena you and the explanation that is given is - 'there is no political will.' Now what does that say about the process?" Colberg said.

The legislators also didn't subpoena Palin, saying they wanted to "de-escalate" the standoff with the governor. They did subpoena Palin's husband, Todd.

Todd Palin and two others refused last week to honor the Legislature's subpoenas.

Sarah and Todd Palin are both represented in the Troopergate investigation by an Anchorage attorney, Thomas Van Flein. There's some dispute over just whom Van Flein is working for. Colberg said Friday that Van Flein is on contract with the state to represent the governor, although the state has nothing to do with his representation of Todd.

But Van Flein, who has been getting advice from a lawyer working on the McCain-Palin campaign, insists he canceled the state contract on Sept. 12.

Colberg said he does not think Van Flein has received any money from the state. Palin's gubernatorial spokesman, Bill McAllister, said that's his understanding as well. Van Flein said the state is not paying his fees and that the Palins are responsible. But he wouldn't say whether they were paying directly, or if the money is coming from the McCain campaign or some other source.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344. Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia contributed to this story.


BY SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com