Palin's legal debts pile up

Lisa Demer

Gov. Sarah Palin owes more than a half million dollars to an Anchorage law firm that has defended her against ethics complaints, and she may create a legal fund to pay the bill, she said Friday.

Legal bills have mounted fighting complaints that she called partisan, false and frivolous, starting with "the politically motivated Troopergate probe," Palin said in a written response to questions.

She said the legal bills all stem from her actions as governor.

"I must defend against these baseless ethics accusations out of my own pocket as the use of public monies to do so could itself violate state law," Palin wrote.

The debt, amassed since she was catapulted into the national spotlight during the presidential race, was revealed in her annual financial disclosure filed this week with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

"On August 29, it seems the political landscape changed in Alaska. Now, it seems in order to do this job as Governor, with the political blood sport some are playing today, only the independently wealthy or those willing to spend their income on legal fees to defend their official actions in office ... can serve," Palin said in the written response to Daily News questions.

The debt is owed to the Alaska law firm Clapp, Peterson, Van Flein, Tiemessen & Thorsness, according to her financial disclosure.

The disclosure said only that she owed "hundreds of thousands of dollars." On Friday in the written statement, attorney Thomas Van Flein wouldn't give a precise number but said it was "a substantial debt." Palin said she didn't have an exact figure yet but "the debt is over a half a million dollars."

Van Flein represented Palin on the Troopergate controversy, which grew from her dismissal of the state's public safety commissioner, as well as other complaints alleging ethics violations, some of which have not been publicized. One was filed under the name of a soap opera character, Palin said. Another concerned the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute using her photograph to promote seafood.

Palin also faced a small claims case in Washington, D.C., that was dismissed when the plaintiff didn't show up for a hearing.

In all, Palin said, there have been 10 ethics complaints, counting Troopergate, though she did not provide a list. State ethics complaints are confidential unless a public accusation is filed or the accused person agrees in writing to make to make it public. State officials said they could not discuss any pending ethics cases.

Out of the 10 complaints, Palin said six have been dismissed, one had "concluded," and three are pending.

Last month, with Van Flein as her lawyer, she settled an ethics complaint over her children's travel by agreeing to repay the state for an estimated 10 trips. She said Friday that debt is still under review by the state.

Activists who have brought complaints against Palin said they don't consider their efforts frivolous.

Zane Henning, a North Slope worker, filed a complaint in November after the election, accusing Palin of partisan "post-election damage control" for talking to reporters about the campaign in her state office. He said he wanted to stop that sort of behavior, and it seems to have worked, but he couldn't talk about the complaint further while it was pending.

Andree McLeod, who has filed four ethics complaints against Palin and top aides, and made a number of public records requests, says she's doing exactly what Palin expects. When Palin was sworn in as governor in December 2006, McLeod recalled, she said "Alaskans, hold me accountable; and right backatcha. I'll expect a lot from you too."

"I'm unambiguously, steadfastly and doggedly holding Palin accountable," McLeod said in a statement. Her most recent complaint, filed this week, accuses Palin of using state resources to post a campaign message on the state Web site, and using her state spokesman to address confusion caused by her political action committee.

Van Flein initially was hired by the state under a $95,000 contract to represent Palin in a legislative investigation of Troopergate.

At issue was whether Palin pushed for the firing of her ex-brother-in-law, state Trooper Mike Wooten, then fired public safety commissioner Walt Monegan when the trooper stayed on the job.

But just after Van Flein was tapped, Palin landed on the national GOP ticket. Van Flein said the investigation "became part of the national campaign strategy against the governor." He never billed the state.

Palin said she knew the case had turned political when CNN reported that the Obama campaign had spoken with the troopers' union about Monegan. Meg Stapleton, spokeswoman for Sarah PAC, Palin's political action committee, said in an e-mail Friday evening that a CNN reporter who was live on the air Sept. 5 reported the Obama campaign reached out to Wooten through his union.

Palin said she didn't think it would be fair to "sacrifice public monies to defend against something that was so politically charged." Van Flein called the investigation a "political probe" and an "abuse of state money."

Asked for response, state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who directed the investigation, wrote in an e-mail that the state's bipartisan Legislative Council approved the investigation 12-0, with eight Republicans voting for it. The panel agreed to spend up to $100,000, mainly for an independent counsel, but spent $75,000.

"The investigation came in 25% under budget, which is clear evidence that the investigator was restrained and judicious in the work that he performed," French wrote Friday evening.

The legislative investigation concluded Palin abused her power by not stopping her husband, Todd, from trying to get trooper Wooten fired.

Palin didn't cooperate with that probe, but with Van Flein's help got the matter before the state Personnel Board by making an ethics complaint against herself. That investigation concluded the day before the election and found she didn't know what her family or staff members were doing regarding Wooten so she couldn't be held responsible.

Palin made $131,891 last year, counting her $125,000 salary and expense payments she collects when she's away from Juneau, according to the disclosure. Todd Palin made $86,150 from his two jobs, as a commercial fisherman and a BP production operator.

"Obviously we cannot afford to personally pay these bills -- and really no future governor should feel the sense of financial vulnerability at the hands of those with a political vendetta bent on personal destruction," Palin wrote. "Some have suggested a legal fund to pay these bills. We'll have to pursue that."

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