Officials reject Palin complaints

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services,Elizabeth Bluemink

Gov. Sarah Palin won dismissal Friday of two separate complaints alleging she broke ethics and election law.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission rejected a claim that the governor violated election law last summer by taking a public position on a controversial ballot initiative on mining pollution.

At almost the same time, an attorney hired by the state personnel board dismissed an ethics complaint claiming Palin's role in the political action committee SarahPAC poses a conflict with her official duties as governor.

Palin said the decisions affirmed her constitutional right to free speech.

A Bristol Bay lodge owner, Brian Kraft, filed the election law complaint against Palin over the so-called "Clean Water" initiative, which Alaska voters rejected Aug. 26. Aimed at the proposed Pebble project, it tried to create tougher pollution discharge requirements for large mines.

Kraft said it was illegal for Palin to announce six days before the election, with TV cameras rolling, that she would "vote no" on the initiative. The members of the public offices commission disagreed in a unanimous four to zero vote.

"The Governor's statement was made in response to a question at a press conference, and we presume, absent contrary evidence, that she spoke as part of her usual and customary duties -- not to influence the outcome of the election" the commission said in its written ruling.

The commission said state law regulates the spending of state money on ballot measures but doesn't address if public officials can express an opinion on them. The governor's statement did not require the state to spend any money, the ruling noted.

The commission also said "it is concerned with the free speech implications of a ruling that attempts to regulate what the Governor can say."

Palin appointed all four of the sitting members of the public offices commission. Two are Democrats and two are Republicans.

The complaint made to the state Personnel Board was brought by Anchorage resident Sondra Tompkins. She alleged the governor abdicated her governor duties at a critical time -- the end of the legislative session -- when she went to Indiana for two events, a Right to Life banquet and a breakfast for families with Down syndrome children.

"The recent partisan trip to Indiana by the Governor was purely to benefit personal interests, had no benefit for the State of Alaska and was in direct conflict with her official duties," the complaint alleged.

Thomas Daniel, who was hired to evaluate the complaint, said the issue was political, not ethical.

"The governor's decision to leave the state at the end of the legislative session, may have been unwise. But the voters should express their opinion on that subject at the ballot box -- not in an ethics complaint," he wrote.

Daniel also wrote that "the fact that the Governor traveled to Indiana to attend a dinner (and a breakfast meeting the next morning) did not take significant time, if any, away from the Governor's duties ... the Governor has staff members who interface with the Legislature, and the Governor herself can communicate with members of the Legislature by phone or e-mail, even when she is in another state."

SarahPAC paid for the travel to Indiana, a spokeswoman for the group has said. The ethics complaint said Palin essentially has a "contract" with SarahPAC to work for its interests on national issues, even when those interests don't match Alaska's.

Daniel disagreed.

"The real purpose of a leadership PAC is to allow nationally prominent political leaders to solicit funds to pay for the expenses associated with traveling and speaking on national issues. It is not at all clear that this will be incompatible with Governor Palin's normal duties as Governor, which include expressing her opinion on a broad range of issues of concern to Alaskans and the nation," he wrote.

Tompkins, who filed the complaint, said it "is laughable at best" to consider the personnel board independent. It's a board hired and fired by the governor, she said.

Members are appointed by the governor, though Palin only had a role in appointing one of the three current members. The governor also has the power to remove members of the board, but only for cause.

The governor's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said that 14 ethics complaints have been filed against the governor or her staff and nine have now been resolved without any finding that the law was broken. Another five complaints are still pending, Van Flein said.

But to settle one complaint, Palin did agree to repay the state for 10 trips taken by her children.

Palin has set up a legal expense fund to help pay legal bills from defending ethics complaints. She has said she's amassed more than $500,000 in legal bills fighting them as well as other matters.

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