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Palin to reimburse state for family travel

Lisa Demer
Some of Gov. Palin's stated justifications to work in Anchorage and collect the expense money raise questions of their own: an interview with Fox News on Nov. 9, a telephone call with newly defeated U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole on Nov. 21 and photos with the University of Alaska Anchorage basketball teams on Nov. 28 and 29, 2008.
ERIK HILL / Daily News archive 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin has agreed to reimburse the state an estimated $6,800 to cover assorted costs related to nine trips taken by her children in 2007 and 2008, but she's not admitting that she did anything wrong.

Her agreement announced Tuesday with an investigator for the state Personnel Board settled an ethics complaint filed in October.

It's the latest development related to Palin's expenses and perks. State officials announced Monday that Palin had turned in her state Chevy Suburban after learning she would owe income taxes on any personal use of it, and last week they said she also would have to pay taxes on expense money she received while living in her Wasilla home.

State officials haven't itemized the amounts that Palin will repay in the next four months for the children's travel, but estimated the total at about $6,800. Now that the agreement is finalized, they'll review the nine trips in detail, they said.

The charges at issue include the cost of airfare and one meal when daughter Bristol to accompanied Palin to New York City in 2007 for a women's leadership conference, according to the settlement agreement. State travel forms put that cost at about $1,400.

There's also airfare and hotel costs for daughters Bristol and Piper to travel with their mother to the National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia last July. State travel forms say the flights and hotel room at the Ritz Carlton cost more than $2,500.

Other questioned trips were in Alaska, including one last year to the start of the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmachine race, in which Palin's husband, Todd, was one of the contenders.

"This is a big state, and I am obligated to -- and intend to -- keep Alaskans informed and meet with them as much as I can, from Barrow to Marshall to Ketchikan," Palin said in a written statement. "At the same time, I am blessed to have a large and loving family, and the discharge of my duties should not prevent me from spending time with them."

The settlement was signed Monday by Palin and Anchorage lawyer Tim Petumenos, who was hired by the state Personnel Board to investigate the complaint.

"Nothing in this agreement constitutes an admission of wrongdoing, and none has been found," the document said.

Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, took it a step further.

"The governor has been exonerated of all wrongdoing in this ethics act complaint. There is no finding of wrongdoing and there is no ethics violation," Van Flein said in a news conference.

So was she exonerated?

"To be exonerated suggests a hearing on the merits and a conclusion. That was not what happened here," Petumenos said.

As Petumenos described it, the governor agreed not to contest certain charges. He agreed not to file a formal accusation or take the case to a hearing.

Both sides agreed that state regulations governing ethical standards for travel by the governor's family are sorely lacking. Petumenos described the rules as "dizzying" and circular.

The question of when the state should cover travel by the governor's family needs to be clarified by the state Department of Law through new regulations, both sides said.

The state travel policy posted on the state Web site says that travel expenses by a state employee's spouse, children or companions "are not reimbursable."

But Palin's attorney said that doesn't apply to the governor's family. There's a long-standing tradition going back through prior administrations for family travel to be covered, because the public expects the governor -- and family -- at various events, Van Flein said. They call it "Protocol Travel."

For instance, former Gov. Frank Murkowski insisted that his wife, Nancy, accompany him on scores of trips. In 2004, the longtime administrative director for the governor's office questioned that. Murkowski's chief of staff explained the state-paid travel was justified because Nancy Murkowski was a senior adviser and Murkowski added a handwritten comment that said, "As a general rule if Nancy doesn't go I don't go."

Petumenos evaluated the children's travel in terms of whether it "serves an important state interest."

Palin offered acceptable justification for the vast majority of trips that included the children, Petumenos said. In all, he said he examined more than 40 trips, some of which involved several legs.

But for nine trips, the personal benefit outweighed the public benefit, he found. For some, only a portion of the children's expenses will be repaid because parts of the trip were determined to be legitimate, according to the agreement.

The children's travel has been an issue since last summer after questions arose about who paid for Piper to accompany her mother on a trip to Barrow. As it turned out, the state covered the return trip.

When Palin landed on the GOP ticket as the vice presidential candidate, the attention intensified.

The complaint over children's travel was filed by Frank Gwartney, a retired electrical power lineman from Anchorage. He's a registered Democrat, and contributed to President Barack Obama's campaign.

"Sarah had run on this platform of ethics and cleaning up the state," Gwartney said. "It's fairly hypocritical. She's just repeating the same thing everyone else has done."

Palin called the complaint "an obvious political weapon, with an associate of a political adversary filing this and making it public -- against state law -- just before the election." But Gwartney said he didn't time the complaint to hit during the heat of the campaign. He said he filed it after new information about the children's travel was revealed in news reports.

Petumenos earlier investigated "Troopergate," involving allegations that Palin fired her public safety commissioner after he refused to let go a state trooper who was Palin's ex-brother-in-law. He found she didn't violate the law or abuse her power in that case.

A separate legislative report, however, concluded she abused her power.

Reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this story. Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

PDF: State Personnel Board settlement with Palin over children's travel
PDF: Governors' travel expenses by year (1999-2008)
Video: Governor's per diem press conference
PDF: Press release from Palin's lawyers
By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com