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Colberg resigns amid legislative pressure over 'Troopergate'

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

JUNEAU -- Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg has resigned as bad blood boils between Gov. Sarah Palin and state legislators over the "Troopergate" investigation from last fall.

"He just explained that it is a tough environment right now," Palin said Tuesday, hours after the resignation became public.

Palin appointed Colberg to the job in 2006, shortly after she was elected. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Colberg was a little known Palmer attorney with a small private practice before his appointment to a job that ended up in the center of a national political firestorm.

Colberg was under intense pressure from state legislators of both parties. They were furious at his attempt to quash legislative subpoenas in last fall's investigation of whether Palin abused her power and pressed for the firing of an Alaska State Trooper who was her former brother-in-law.

"It is a harsh political environment right now. You saw what he went through these last couple of weeks with speculation that a couple of the lawmakers wanted to continue to grill him, a couple of the lawmakers not believing, it seems, what he had to say," Palin said in an interview. "I just hope this political environment doesn't deter others who want to make a positive difference."

State Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis said any toxicity in the political climate isn't the fault of the Legislature. The Anchorage Democrat said it came from attempts to block the Legislature's investigation during Palin's run as Republican nominee for vice president.

"We were not the creators of any harsh political environment. That happened because of other people's personal choices and political ambitions at the national level that politicized things to a degree that I'd never seen in Alaska political history," Ellis said

Ellis said Colberg's resignation creates a sense of relief that maybe the state can move on from this.

"I personally was not overwhelmed by the attorney general's performance," Ellis said. "In fact, I was underwhelmed with his performance."

Palin spokesman Bill McAllister said Colberg submitted his resignation on Monday night, effective immediately. Rick Svobodny, a deputy attorney general in the criminal division, has been appointed acting attorney general.

Colberg did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday. The governor's office put out a brief statement quoting Colberg saying, "I determined that it was in the best interest of the state of Alaska to move on and pursue other opportunities."

RAMRAS BLAMES PALIN

Two weeks ago, Colberg was grilled in public and sharply criticized by state legislators for trying to kill subpoenas ordering Palin aides to testify in the inquiry over the trooper and the governor's removal of Walt Monegan as public safety commissioner.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, who led the questioning of Colberg, said Palin was the catalyst for the resignation. He said the problems stem from the McCain/Palin campaign "Truth Squad" pushing itself into state business last fall in an attempt to discredit the Legislature's investigation.

"He took a bullet for the governor," Ramras said.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara charged that Colberg "chose an allegiance to the McCain campaign." Colberg wouldn't investigate Gara's suspicion that McCain/Palin campaign workers tampered with witnesses in the Legislature's inquiry.

Palmer Republican Rep. Carl Gatto, who argued it was the Legislature's investigation that was politicized, said he thinks Colberg decided all this just isn't worth it.

"From what I know about him, he's a gentle soul. And at some point you just say that maybe it is better to go back to where I was. That I can go into retirement, I can go back and do divorces, I can do real estate (law) and be with my wife," Gatto said.

HARSH ENVIRONMENT

Palin attributed the "harsh political environment" Colberg faced to legislators who are jockeying for power.

"I think mostly it's the folks lining up to run for governor or other offices," Palin said. "And they have to be positioning themselves."

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the Legislature's investigation, has said he is considering a run for governor or Congress. Palin stopped short of pointing the finger at French specifically, saying she didn't know his specific motivations.

French was not enthusiastic to speak about the resignation. He said he thinks his constituents are more interested in issues like natural gas and crime.

"From my perspective it's time to move on," he said.

The resignation comes just a few days after the state Senate passed French's resolution to find the governor's husband, Todd, and nine Palin aides in contempt for failing to show up when ordered by legislative subpoena to testify in the investigation. The resolution passed on a vote of 16-1 on Friday, although three Palin allies were absent that day.

Todd Palin and the rest did eventually submit written statements to the investigator, so the Senate said no punishment of them was warranted. But French had left open the door for the Senate to look further at what Colberg had done.

"I don't want to get sidetracked by the attorney general's performance in this episode, but it's worth pointing out that this resolution does not resolve questions -- significant and serious questions -- about his actions during this time," French said on the Senate floor as the resolution passed.

French wasn't sure what more could be done and said Tuesday he hadn't planned to pursue the issue.

MIXED CONCLUSIONS

Colberg's resignation won't end the tension between legislators and the Palin administration over the contempt resolution. It named the governor's husband as well as her chief of staff, Mike Nizich, and several of her top aides for failing to appear when ordered by subpoena.

Palin said Tuesday that her husband and the nine state employees had a right to challenge the subpoenas issued by the Senate Judiciary Committee and they all cooperated after the court ruled.

Palin complained there was no public hearing on the resolution and that the Senate should have at least given the people named in it a heads up it was coming.

"This comes on the heels of, how many meetings have we had with lawmakers where they've said they're committed to open, transparent communications between administration and their branch of government? And to have not known this was coming proves that actions speak louder than words," Palin said.

Legislators seemed to be trying to defuse the situation Tuesday. Senate President Gary Stevens met with Palin and gave her a letter saying he wants to move on. It said the resolution was to affirm that the legislative branch of government has a right to issue subpoenas that must be obeyed.

"I chose not to give this resolution a committee hearing because I wanted to avoid providing anyone the opportunity to grandstand and divert attention away from the issue," Stevens wrote.

The "Troopergate" report issued last fall by the Legislature's investigator found Palin broke ethics law and abused her power in allowing her husband and top aides to push for the firing of the trooper.

But a second report, conducted by attorney Tim Petumenos for the state personnel board, came to the opposite conclusion and did not find Palin abused her power.

The Legislature doesn't plan to take any action on the findings.

AN ETHICAL MAN

Stevens told reporters he was surprised at Colberg's resignation. He said Colberg was effective and ethical. "When you think of Talis, ethics pops to mind. I've been really pleased to work with him and sorry to see him go," Stevens said.

Palin said Colberg did a great job and handled all the state issues before him well. Palin said one of the things she most liked about Colberg was that he was an outsider from the private sector. He didn't have ties to lobbyists or special interests, she said.

"What I have mostly appreciated from Talis is he's really helped to give faith to those who'd lost faith in our government and those that questioned for whom our public officials served," she said.

But Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said it helps to have some of the skills of a politician in a job like that. He said Colberg didn't seem comfortable with the public back and forth of the job.

"He seemed to be a guy that was not very well suited to his position in the first place," Doogan said.

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