Troopergate report: Palin abused power

Don Hunter,Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services,Wesley LoyPetroleum News
Chairman of the Legislative Council, Sen. Kim Elton, speaks during a meeting in which the council voted to release Steve Branchflower's "Troopergate Report" on Friday October 10, 2008. 081010 Bob Hallinen

A legislative investigation has concluded that Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power in pushing for the firing of an Alaska state trooper who was once married to her sister, or by failing to prevent her husband Todd from doing so.

The report by investigator Steve Branchflower was made public late this afternoon by a bipartisan 12-0 vote of the Legislative Council, which authorized the investigation.

Branchflower's report contains four findings. The first concludes that Palin violated the state's executive branch ethics act, which says that "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust."

Branchflower was investigating Palin's involvement in an effort to get state trooper Mike Wooten fired. Wooten was involved in a nasty divorce from Palin's sister. Palin and her husband, Todd, have accused Wooten of threatening Palin's father.

The investigation also looked into whether Palin dismissed public safety commissioner Walt Monegan because he resisted pressure to fire Wooten.

The report says Palin failed to reign in her husband's inappropriate efforts to use the governor's office to contact trooper employees in his attempts to have Wooten fired.

"Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda ... to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired," Branchflower's report says.

"Compliance with the code of ethics is not optional. It is an individual responsibility imposed by law, and any effort to benefit a personal interest through official action is a violation of that trust. ... The term ‘benefit' is very broadly defined, and includes anything that is to the person's advantage or personal self-interest."

In the second finding, Branchflower says Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was not the sole reason for his dismissal but that it was a "contributing factor." Still, he said, Palin's firing of Monegan was "a proper and lawful exercise" of the governor's authority.

The third finding says a workers compensation claim filed by Wooten was handled appropriately. Number four concludes that the attorney general's office failed to comply with Branchflower's Aug. 6 request for information about the case in the form of e-mails.

Branchflower writes that his investigation did not take into account late-arriving statements from several administration officials who, on the advice of Attorney General Talis Colberg, resisted subpoenas. They agreed to provide written statements this week, however, after a state judge upheld the subpoenas. Information from those statements was provided to the Legislative Council separately.

In a five-page response issued Friday night, Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, accuses Branchflower and Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the investigation, of using the probe in a partisan attempt to "smear the governor by innuendo."

Van Flein says Branchflower's finding that Palin violated the ethics act is flawed because she received no monetary benefit from whatever actions she and her husband are accused of. He cited several prior ethics investigations.

"The common thread of all of these Ethics Act cases is money and the use of a government position to personally gain," Van Flein's statement says.

"Here, there is no accusation, no finding and no facts that money or financial gain to the Governor was involved in the decision to remove Monegan," the governor's attorney says. "There can be no ethics violations under these circumstances."

The McCain-Palin campaign also responded.

Because Branchflower's report does not recommend any particular penalty for Palin, it shows the investigation was outside the Legislature's authority, campaign Meghan Stapleton said.

"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and the public interest by reporting to appropriate authorities the conduct of a threatening and abusive trooper," Stapleton said.

Stapleton and spokesman Ed O'Callaghan, a former New York prosecutor now working for the campaign in Alaska, have been meeting regularly with reporters in an effort to discredit the investigation.

The campaign also said Branchflower's finding that Palin broke state ethics laws is beyond the scope of the original investigation, which Stapleton and O'Callaghan said was to determine if she had a legitimate reason for firing Monegan.

In authorizing the investigation on July 28, the members of the legislative council voted "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."

The chairman of the Legislative Council, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he agreed with Branchflower's findings but wasn't ready to suggest there should be any consequences for the governor.

"We don't charge people, we don't try people as legislators," Elton said. Any further action or disciplinary measures, he said, would be up to Palin's executive branch, the attorney general or the state Personnel Board.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the report is flawed because Branchflower didn't take into account statements and other materials submitted earlier this week by Todd Palin and administration employees who earlier had resisted subpoenas.

Therriault said Todd Palin's written response indicates that Gov. Palin, at some point, urged her husband to drop his efforts against Wooten. That information goes to the heart of Branchflower's conclusion that the governor violated the ethics law, Therriault said.

Therriault said Branchflower was unable to consider those late-arriving materials "because we had this artificial deadline today."

"Why?" he continued. "Because we're in a political season."

Senate President Lyda Green said the report doesn't speak well for the governor.

"The problem with power is that people pay attention to it," the Wasilla Republican said. "And it's very easy to get beside yourself and use it in the wrong way.

"And we do have to leave personal business at home," she said.

Two other lawmakers said the governer and her husband's actions were understandable.

"Who is going to blame Todd Palin for protecting his family?" said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole. " Not me."

Another member of the Legislative Council, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he thinks Branchflower's findings are wrong, and that Palin didn't violate the ethics act. "She and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family," Lynn said. "I think any normal person would do the same."

The release of Branchflower's 263-page report came after a unanimous vote of the 12-member Legislative Council, which authorized the inquiry last summer. The vote followed an all-day, closed-door meeting with Branchflower. Three members participated by telephone.

Branchflower also recommends the Legislature change the way complaints against peace officers such as troopers are handled. He says lawmakers should consider making it possible for people who file such complaints to get feedback about the status of their complaint and whatever action was taken about it.

The initial complaint against Wooten was filed by Gov. Palin's father, Chuck Heath, before she was elected governor in 2006. Branchflower says the inability of the family to get information about what was happening with the complaint was frustrating to them.

"I believe their frustration was real as was their skepticism about whether their complaints were being zealously investigated," Branchflower's report says. "The irony is that the complaints were taken very seriously, and a thorough investigation was underway. However, the law prevented the Troopers from giving them any feedback whatsoever."

The law should try to balance the need for confidentiality with a recognition that feedback to the filer of a complaint is also important, the report says.

Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins also contributed to this report.

The report's findings
PDF: The Branchflower report
PDF: Disclosure form from Palin's lawyer (09/01/08)
PDF: Motion from Palin's lawyers for no probable cause
PDF: Transcript of interview with Palin and state troopers
Anchorage Daily News