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Trooper, union say politics delayed Johnston drug case

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service
The Associated Press

A Mat-Su drug investigator and the union representing Alaska State Troopers are alleging political meddling in the Sherry Johnston drug case, including a delay in serving the search warrant because of the November election.

Johnston is the mother of Levi Johnston, who became nationally known in September when Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, announced their daughter, Bristol, was pregnant and he was the father. Palin was running for vice president while Sherry Johnston was under investigation.

Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters and troopers director Col. Audie Holloway vigorously dispute that there was anything irregular in how this case was handled.

"We worked very hard to make sure we conducted it just as fairly and as normally as any other investigation," Holloway said.

That's not what Kyle Young, a troopers drug investigator who was involved in the case, wrote in an e-mail last week to all members of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union that represents troopers and other law enforcement officers around the state.

Young wrote that after it became clear who Johnston is, "this case became anything but normal."

"It was not allowed to progress in a normal fashion, the search warrant service WAS delayed because of the pending election and the Mat Su Drug Unit and the case officer were not the ones calling the shots," Young wrote.

Sherry Johnston was arrested Dec. 18 on charges of selling the prescription painkiller OxyContin, the same day the warrant was served.

Young, speaking through union officials, declined to comment for this story. But John Cyr, executive director of the union, said it's clear to him that the investigation was handled differently because of who Johnston is.

"This really does smack of political favoritism. And if that be the case, it's another example of the Palin administration's direct influence on the public safety unit," Cyr said.

Tension between the governor and the public safety employees union is not new. The union and Palin battled over the governor's July removal of Walt Monegan as public safety commissioner, and the allegations she pressured public safety officials to fire a trooper who was her ex-brother-in-law. Palin appointed Masters as the public safety commissioner in September.

Cyr said the union is confident Young's version of what happened is true. That's because the union verified it in discussions "with the entire drug unit, with all of our members," he said.

He said the people the union president spoke with included the case officer for the Johnston investigation, Donna Anthony. She works on the Mat-Su drug unit but is a member of the Palmer police force, which is not part of the union.

Anthony did not return a call seeking comment.

Public safety commissioner Masters said Young made assumptions in his e-mail and didn't know what was going on behind the scenes to make sure the investigation was normal. Troopers Director Holloway said the higher ups were indeed scrutinizing everything in the Johnston investigation -- but only to ensure that it was conducted just like any other similar case would be.

"We did everything we possibly could to ensure that the investigation progressed in a normal fashion as other investigations similar to this would proceed," Masters said.

The timing of the investigation was based on "when we could get Johnston to sell to us. We were entirely at her schedule," Holloway said.

Holloway and Masters denied Young's statement that troopers delayed serving the search warrant because of the Nov. 4 election. Masters said the warrant was obtained Dec. 2 and served on Dec. 18 when it became clear a final drug buy the officers hoped for was falling through.

Johnston was at her Wasilla home when it was searched, and was arrested the same day. She's out on bail and is scheduled to appear in court this week.

Palin's spokesman, Bill McAllister, said Saturday he had nothing to add to what Masters said.

Johnston's son and the governor's daughter became parents on Dec. 27 with the birth of their son, Tripp. Levi Johnston is working as an electrical apprentice on the North Slope, according to a statement issued last week by the governor's office.

Masters said neither Palin nor anyone else in the governor's office knew of the investigation until the search warrant was served. At that point, Masters said, he called Palin chief of staff Mike Nizich and gave him a heads-up to be aware that a media frenzy was coming.

Young's e-mail last week to union members was in response to a written statement issued to news media by Masters last Monday. In the statement, Masters declared the case officer, Anthony, had filed an inaccurate affidavit as part of the charging documents.

The investigation, Masters wrote, was handled normally and that the affidavit wrongly said Johnston had been under Secret Service protection.

He was referring to a line in the affidavit saying "Sherry Johnston is no longer under the protection or surveillance of the Secret Service." Masters wrote he would notify the court about the inaccuracy.

Investigator Young said the affidavit was accurate and that "apparent political pressure" motivated Masters to contact the court and "smear" the case officer.

"It is true that Sherry was not directly under Secret Service protection, but it is true that when Levi was at the house, that he and other household members were under their protection," Young wrote in his e-mail to union members.

"Text messages from Johnston to the informant indicated that she was afraid to meet and conduct one illegal transaction, because of Secret Service presence at her home," Young wrote.

In an interview Friday, Masters said neither Levi nor Sherry Johnston were under Secret Service protection -- just the governor and her immediate family, including Bristol. A spokesman for the Secret Service said the same thing to the Daily News earlier.

Masters said the governor's office didn't ask him to send out the written statement, and he was just trying to clear up misunderstandings in the media. Troopers director Holloway said he advised Masters against issuing the statement because he didn't think it was necessary and would just make an issue out of it.

Public safety union director Cyr said there's no formal role for the union to take at this point regarding what Young wrote, other than standing behind him.

"There is no reason for the Mat Su drug unit to lie or to falsify the record in this regard. And there is reason, political reason, for the commissioner and other members of the command staff, if you will, to distort what actually happened," he said.

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


By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com